I was a member of K Company – 345th Regiment. I was in the Communications Section of Company Headquarters, carrying the SCR536 Handy Talky, relaying and receiving messages to and from the platoon leaders or carrying the SCR300, communicating with Battalion Headquarters. What follows are my experiences during this time. It may be totally different from the experiences of other surviving members of my company. You are generally only aware of what is happening in a radius of 100 feet or so. Some incidents I can remember as part of a chain of events. Other incidents are isolated and I can’t put them in context. I will try to contribute more as time and memory permit.
After V-E Day, we settled into barracks life, except we were in pup tents. Close order drill, parades, physical training, inspections and softball took up our time. Living in the field, the only latrines available were slit trenches, dug by assigned details or work parties. As G.I.s straggled over in the morning to straddle the trenches, German hausfraus leaning over a nearby rail fence idly watched them. Who knows what they talked about?
In early June 1945, we were alerted to begin our journey back to the U.S.A. First stop was to be a preliminary staging area – a new camp, “Oklahoma City” in northern France near Rheims. We boarded box cars near Plauen and were on our way west to Camp Oklahoma City. The box cars were big, with lots of straw on the floor and room to spread our sleeping bags. It was a pleasant journey from Eastern Germany to Northern France. Our cars had been stocked with crates of fresh oranges. As we passed through German villages, we tried to toss oranges to children who were waving to us from backyards near the tracks. Unfortunately, the oranges were more like small round missiles as they were propelled by the speed of the train. Arriving at the camp, we were the first division to be processed. No barracks had been finished, so we stayed in tents.
We soon moved on to the more finished and organized “Camp Lucky Strike” outside Paris. This would be our embarkation center to the U.S. A number of us received one-day passes to Paris. At Company Headquarters, a foot locker stocked with cartons of cigarettes and candy bars was the source of our means to finance ourselves when we got to Paris. Each man received a ration of cigarettes and chocolate bars to be converted to francs.
As Erwin O’Leary and I jumped down from our truck in front of the USO, we were immediately eyed by a Frenchman and after a nod of “follow me” and a short walk, we found ourselves in what appeared to be a huge warehouse filled with small tables, each with several chairs. This was the organized black market. This was where you bargained cigarettes and chocolate for francs. We thought that to be canny, we wouldn’t barter all our treasure here. After pocketing some francs, we did some sightseeing.
Since the USO was in the center of Paris, we were able to view the Eiffel Tower and Arc de Triomphe while walking the Avenue de Champs Elysee. Having toured, we took a taxi to Montmartre for more bargaining and adventure. We went to several small bistros where, after a glass of wine, we always found a waiter ready to do business. Usually we would go to the basement. There a suitcase would be opened, already partially filled with cigarettes, soap and candy bars, and then the transaction would be made. Between these encounters, we would casually meet young women or girls and promise to meet them at the Sacre-Coeur, the magnificent cathedral in Montmartre. None of these meetings came about, because we realized we would have to catch the bus back to Camp Lucky Strike before the appointed hour, which we did, after many glasses of wine and with few remaining francs.
There was limited entertainment at Camp Lucky Strike. Our company was once given an opportunity to see a USO show. It was not a great show – several women were doing a dance routine when a stupid G.I. released a blown-up condom that fizzled up into the air. Outraged, the women immediately left the stage. Without a word, the men filed out row by row. They had never seen a USO show overseas. They had never seen a Red Cross donut and coffee truck. Now they didn’t care.
The 87th Division’s next move was to Le Havre, where we put on our packs and climbed cargo nets onto the “West Point” – formerly the cruise ship “America” – and sailed for home on July 5. Quite a different voyage from the trip over. We had sailed for England on the Queen Elizabeth in October 1944 in rough seas, packed in four-high hammocks like sardines and had breakfasted on herring swimming in grease, which on sight drove many G.I.s to the rail. This time, we ate American food, did calisthenics and relaxed with poker and craps, as we sailed west on a placid sea.
On July 11, we arrived in New York harbor and docked in the Lower Hudson River in New York City. As one of the first troopships to return from Europe, we were given a great welcome with fire boats sending up fountains of water and ticker tape and confetti drifting down the waterfront. We walked down to the pier to cheers and boarded trains back to Camp Kilmer, New Jersy, where we had prepared to embark the previous year. By chance or design, we occupied the same barracks. Some men searched and found their initials carved in barracks posts in ’44. It was a sober joy to find visible proof that you had gone to war, survived and returned.
We immediately departed for 30-day furloughs, knowing we would return to Ft. Benning, Georgia to train for the invasion of Japan. On August 8, 1945, Japan surrendered after the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, followed by another bomb dropped on Nagasaki. My father embraced me and for the only time I can remember he sobbed. I had survived a war in Europe. I didn’t think I would survive an invasion of Japan.
Our furloughs over, we gathered at Ft. Benning to demobilize the 87th Division. There was little organized activity. It was easy to get a day pass to Columbus, GA. We only had to keep our barracks and company area clean. One warm August night, an officers’ party was held with ample food and drink. A detail from K Co. was assigned to clean up the next morning. On returning to the Company Street, the men began to drop over. They had eaten up the leftover potato salad – ptomaine poisoning! We carried them to the infirmary, where they recovered in a few days.
In September, we were sent to Army installations closest to our homes to wait for the discharge points to gradually drop to where we would be eligible for discharge. I was sent to Indiantown Gap Military Reservation, promoted from PFC to T5, and assigned to the Finance Department. My job was to calculate final pay for soldiers being processed for discharge.
Ken Douglas from Lincoln, Nebraska, had the bunk next to me. I don’t know why he wasn’t sent closer to home. He had been in our battalion “Tiger Patrol” and was in the church at Nuendorf, Germany when a German tank broke down the door and started firing, killing Sgt. Billy Gray, who hid behind the altar, and spraying shrapnel among others taking cover behind the pews. Several times I watched Ken Douglas sit on his bunk and pick small bits of shrapnel from his legs. We often went to Harrisburg, PA in the evening to explore the restaurants and bars. Ken was discharged and shortly after, my points matched the required points for discharge.
February 7, 1946, I took the bus to Harrisburg and climbed on a Pennsylvania Railroad car for Altoona, PA. I was early, so I took a seat in the almost empty passenger car, except for a soldier in the very front of the car. As he turned, I recognized my cousin, Bill Seiling. Unknown to me, he had been transferred as a mechanic in the Air Force to the 8th Infantry division in Europe, as a replacement. We talked until we stopped in Altoona, PA. My father met me. Bill continued on to his home in Pittsburgh, PA, while my father and I drove five miles on to Hollidaysburg, PA. I was home.