Monday, June 2, 2014

America's Story (part 15) - World War 2: memories of North Africa

Wikipedia/American troops 

As  I write, we are approaching 70 years after D-Day as well as may other anniversaries marking the end of World War Two.  [reference:  D-Day 70th anniversary - 2014 - Normandy commemorations]

Many of my readers may have had relatives that fought in that war.  Those in their their 80s or older may be veterans of this war.

Likewise, my father-in-law had fought in World War II and had served in the Army during Korea and Vietnam.  But he first saw action in the North African theater.  And he may have witnessed many of the events as shown below:

In May of 2014, when clearing out an old foot locker, we found a forgotten manuscript of 17 pages typed by my father-in-law recording his memories of his first engagements during World War Two.  The manuscript was scanned and turned into a PDF.  I converted it to text.  Except for the title, author, and copyright, the text below is exactly how Colonel Smith had typed it up at some unknown time after the war.

With permission from my husband and his family, we thought it had value as a part of America's Story - our history.  Below are his memories as an officer in North Africa - his first combat, the surrendering French, impressions of the locals, and a surprise visit by FDR.  It's a long read, but you may enjoy the real life adventure and its piece of American history.


Memories of World War Two - North Africa
Lt. Colonel Harold W. Smith
(c) June 2014

Shortly after 6 a.m. on 13 October 1942, I kissed my wife farewell and watched her drive off down the dusty Chicken Road on the reservation of Fort Bragg, North Carolina. As I walked slowly toward the rows of tents wherein slept the men and officers of my regiment, I was glad it was still early, for the tears just couldn't be held back any longer. I knew, what that parting meant, and so did Dorothy, that's why I wasn't ashamed to cry. It was the beginning of the greatest adventure of my  life, an adventure that would age me five years beyond my real age and tinge my hair with gray. I was going to war.

 The tent area was filled with hurrying men, hurrying to get killed, it seemed to me, but frantic in their haste to complete the necessary packing a regiment has to do before boarding a transport vessel. There was crating of weapons, supplies and kitchen equipment to complete, the boxes and crates had to be marked with the regimental code and shipment numbers, innumerable personnel rosters had to be made out as well as loading schedules and tonnage tables. And there were the inevitable last minute changes, men sick, men AWOL, new men being assigned. We raced against time. All passes were cancelled, strange, high-ranking officers appeared from nowhere and were ushered into a little tent that was marked "Task-Force Commander", a guard kept the curious at a respectful distance. Last minute plans and last minute changes in last minute plans, hurry, hurry, hurry.......

 On the 14th the regiment loaded into railroad coaches, each man's shoulder patch showing his divisional insignia was carefully masked with a piece of white cloth. No one must know who we were, or whither we were bound. We didn’t know the latter either. The train chugged into Norfolk, Virginia the next morning and we unloaded in a fine mist of rain. The men stood patiently and silent in prearranged order on the docks by the waiting ships. They looked strangely grotesque standing there. Each carried two barracks bags loaded to capacity, one marked "A" the other "B". Each wore a full-field pack, carried a rifle, carried all the other equipment a "walking-soldier" carries. These were infantrymen - the very cream of America's finest fighting men. They looked uncomfortable, and were.

 About 11 a.m. we were finally admitted aboard by the simple process of calling out our first names in response to the calling out of our last names by a port authority who stood by the gangplank. It was a struggle getting the men up the steep gangplank, loaded down as they were, but finally it was accomplished and we were aboard.

 My ship had several names. Its code number was "7", there being a total of eight ships that were to carry our regimental combat team. Its code name was the "Envy", and since it was a former merchantman converted to an army transport, the Army name was the U.S.S. Florence Nightingale, but its original name was the "Mormacksun" of the Moore- MacCormack Line.

 We steamed out of Norfolk on the 16th and went up to the Chesapeake Bay off Solomon's Island where we made a last minute check of our landing technique, then back to Norfolk for more cargo and probably water. Since I didn't leave the ship at Norfolk, my practice landing in the Chesapeake meant that the last American soil under my feet was that of my own native state, Maryland. It made me feel better, somehow.

 At some time during the darkness of the early morning hours of October 23rd, we left the shores of the United States for an unknown destination. Many of the men were leaving their native land for the last time, and I think that more than a few probably realized it. There was much speculation as to our destination. We knew we were to come off the boat fighting, but where? That was the big question of the moment.

 Forty-eight hours at sea the officers were called before the commander of troops. "Gentlemen", he said, "you are now bound for Africa, we are going to invade French Morocco if the French attempt resistance. Will you please see that your men are informed and pass among them copies of this little blue book I have here." He was holding a small publication on the customs, etc. of Africa. That was all. I went to tell my men as directed, most of them knew it already. Enlisted men have a habit of knowing things as soon as and sometimes before the officers. It’s only  one of their marvelous faculties.

 Living conditions aboard ship were not at all conducive to peace of mind during the voyage. In the first place it was a well known and oft quoted fact that if we should be so unfortunate as to run afoul of a torpedo, we would not go down - we'd go up. The ship had some 65,000 gallons of 100 Octane aviation gasoline in her tanks, destined for use by the P-40’s which were to be based in Africa after we secured the airfields. In addition there was so much ammunition of all types stowed in every conceivable place that the men were walking and lying on cases of hand grenades, fragmentation type, incendiary smoke pots, and a hodge- podge of other combustible materials.

 Our floating home was so recently converted to our needs that the cooking facilities were not the most desirable, and combined with our cooks’ unfamiliarity with the equipment, appetizing quality was missing in the meals served to the enlisted men. The officers, as usual, fared considerably better. Living conditions were deplorable for officers and men alike. The hatches leading to the troop compartments remained closed necessarily. The air conditioning system failed regularly and the odor resulting from so many hundreds of perspiring bodies was enough to make one retch. The officers staterooms were cubby-holes originally designed for two; I shared mine with 10 others, and we had an empty bunk left over. Surprisingly, there was little complaint, everyone accepted the over-crowding with an air of resignation. Everyone's mind was undoubtedly filled with more important thoughts than complaining.

 Gradually, other ships joined our convoy until at last we were a mighty armada of over 550 vessels of all types. The aircraft carrier "Ranger" loomed like a floating skyscraper on the horizon, the battleships "New York", "Texas", and "Massachusetts" were comfortably close, the cruisers "Augusta" and “Savannah” were also nearby, and destroyers as far as the eye could see swarmed in and out of our convoy pattern. It was a very businesslike picture.

 As we made our way across the Atlantic, the water changed color almost as frequently as we shifted our course for anti-submarine purposes. There were the usual false rumors of subs being sighted, and several times a destroyer or two would swing violently off-course and rush around in tight circles over a particular area of ocean. If they had picked up soundings of a sub we never got official news of it but quite probably German submarines were aware of that vast fleet of ships.

 There were surprisingly few cases of seasickness aboard my ship, but there was a considerable amount of what might be termed as "a general uneasy sensation in the stomach" among the army personnel aboard. During one occasion of rough weather, it was my job to escort a portion of the men to the mess and keep the line moving. By the time I reached the galley, and saw the greasy floor, odor of food, felt the heat of the compartment, combination, I was in no mood to stand there directing traffic. A few men were ill enough to vomit in the waste food receptacles, I had to leave in a hurry. My stomach in a violent upheaval, my head swimming. I had to lie down in my bunk the remainder of the evening plus most of the next morning. The way I felt then, had the entire German U-boat fleet attacked I couldn't have cared less.

 Sometime during the night of November 7th the forward motion of the convoy ceased. We knew we were somewhere off the coast of French Morocco, North Africa and that was about all. A rumor had circulated to the effect that an ultimatum had been delivered to the French and that they had replied that the landing would be unopposed. We doubted it but would have liked to believe it. At about 2330 hours I went to bed. The night was quiet as only night can be on a perfectly calm ocean. There was no sound whatsoever, and there were no lights other than the stars.

 At 0700 on the 8th I arose and dressed. Breakfast consisted only of a bowl of oatmeal. Lunch was to he served cold that day, because no fires were to be allowed aboard. From conversation with some of the officers I learned that the first assault waves had gone ashore at about 0430, that the French shore batteries had opened fire on the convoy, bracketed our ship and that we were now sitting some 20 miles off shore, out of range. Then a report came in over the ship's intercom: "The destroyer 'Roe' has withdrawn from action, having expended 60% of her ammunition." Still it was quiet where we were. In the distance one could see the various warships, much closer to shore, firing erratically. Puffs of flame, some orange, some green, could be observed from the guns and over the water rolled the sound of the guns like a rumble of distant thunder. I knew then that last night's report was untrue. This was the real thing. It was hard to realize.

 About 1000 hours the report came in that all was not going so well on the beaches, it would be necessary for me to go ashore with a company of infantry made up of cooks, artillerymen, ack-ack crews, engineers, and just plain scrapings. We were a sort of strategic reserve, not to be used unless everything was gone to pot so to speak, I couldn't believe it. I was a Cannon Company officer, I liked the job I had as Company Executive, now I was to be a foot-soldier again. I didn't like it a little bit. I wasn't scared - not yet. After I had alerted the men, and everyone had assembled on deck bowed down by the weight of the equipment we carried (we were a lightly armed rapid moving infantry assault company), I struggled into my own personal equipment, tommy-gun, 450 rounds of ammunition, two canteens, musette bag, gas mask, map case, rain coat, field jacket, etc., I could scarcely move. Then over the side, down the nets, and into the pitching little landing craft assault (L.C.A.). The only other officer with me was 2nd Lt. Ortoff, a Division Reconnaissance officer, acting platoon leader. We tossed around in a circle, or rendezvous area, for an hour. Ortoff was sitting in the bottom of the boat, slightly sick. I chewed a stick of gum, trying not to feel quite as bad as he looked. We headed for the shore,

 When we were still about 3 miles out, I noticed splashes in the water about 800 yards from our craft. I thought it might be our ships firing short. It didn't occur to me that it could be the French shore batteries. Then another assault craft raced across our bow, running parallel to the shore, laying a heavy white smoke screen. Immediately I imagined what the beach looked like. Barbed wire, dead men, machine-guns firing at us. When we broke out of the smoke I was never so relieved in my life. The beach was alive with men - all American. A number of the smaller craft had foundered there from earlier landings, vehicles and equipment were spread over the beach in the wildest disarray. The sun was shining brilliantly over the scene. There were a few hastily scooped out fox-holes in the sand. My craft grounded and I was one of the first to jump over the side. The water came up to my knees and was warm. As I hesitated momentarily to check the men getting off, a gentle wave wet me to the hips. I waded about 50 feet to the dry sand. It was about 1430 hours on that Sunday afternoon.

 The first officer I saw from Cannon Company was 2nd Lt. McLemore. He was wandering forlornly down Blue Beach without his glasses and quite wet. I asked him what the situation was, and begged him to relieve me of some of the damned equipment that was hanging around my neck, choking me. Seeing my acute discomfort made him smile, and we quickly got me more comfortable by removing my binoculars, map case, and a pouch of ammunition. I asked him if he got his half-tracks ashore all right. "Do you see that little piece of antenna sticking up out of the ocean over there?", he said. "Well, one of my half-tracks is still attached to the other end of it". He had lost his glasses trying to dive into the surf and get a cable attached to the bumper so that it could be dragged out. He had almost drowned in the attempt. One of his men pulled him out.

 I left Mac with his problems and started rounding up my men, but not before the sub-task force commander strode by wearing fatigues and a pair of brown rubber boots. He was looking quite pleased in a grim fashion. He was Brig. Gen. Lucian Truscott.

 When I saw the Provisional Assault Company (as we were called) commander, Capt. Chittendon, I had about a platoon with me. He had the rest of the men with him. Our orders were to join the First Battalion immediately, so we started off in the general direction they were supposed to be. We crossed the line of dunes and pushed inland.

 Ahead of us was a lagoon which we skirted by going around the south end of it. Near its southern edge and on the side of a hill was a queer looking building. There were Arabs there, mostly women and children. They didn't look very glamorous to me, nor did they appear overly clean. About 1700 hours I saw some A Co. cooks in a jeep. They were lost, couldn't find any of the Bn and were headed back to the beach for further instructions. Then I ran into an A Co. runner named Smith. I asked him how the company was and he said mournfully and breathlessly "Dead, all dead, or captured." I was shocked. "Are you sure?" I said. "Yes sir, the company had been split up to act as road blocks, and were overrun by tanks." "How about Sgt.---- ?" I asked. "Dead." "Well where is the company commander?" I persisted. "Missing, probably dead too." he said. We left him then; I couldn’t believe it, it just didn't make sense. Just before dark, about 2000 hours, a captain who was standing near a scout car called to me as we passed by. "Have you seen Gen. Truscott?" "Not since this afternoon on the beach." I answered. "Well where are you all going now?" he asked. When I told him he said, "Well, if you see him tell him his aide said that he couldn't get the 'track up any further tonite and that I will join him the first thing in the morning." We moved on through the brush. It was getting dark.

 About an hour after dark we found the Bn command post located in a little flat area near the top of a rise. I tried to deliver my message and succeeded in stepping on some staff officer's head. The general wasn’t there. Mostly everyone was asleep. By this time I was pretty tired too, and I made my way back to where the company was spread out. I sat down on the ground, wrapped my raincoat around me, smoked a cigarette under it, and tried to sleep. It was quite cold, and very uncomfortable.

 At about 6 in the morning I shivered myself awake. The Bn. was going to continue the attack with my company in reserve. A co. I learned *had* been used as road blocks, but was by no means annihilated. There had been a few killed and wounded and many had been scattered but the company was still at an effective strength. I felt better. We moved out slowly hearing the sounds of scattered firing always ahead of us. An Arab man was brought to the Bn.C.O. and searched. He was filthy and smelled the same, but he seemed quite harmless. The march had become more rigorous as we sought to keep up with the advancing companies. The day wore on and the heat became quite intense. There was no water. I had about half a canteen left, which I conserved jealously. I wasn’t hungry although I had eaten only one meal since leaving the ship.

 Sometime during the early afternoon, we stopped behind a long swell of ground. About 2000 yards on the other side of the crest were enemy machine-gunners who were uncannily accurate. I determined to work up to the crest to try and spot their positions. Suddenly, there was a terrific noise in the air over my head and when I looked up I could see that it was an air-burst. I was thoroughly frightened and started to run back down the hill. I thought I could hear the wind rushing by my ears, and slowed down, but the sound increased. My next act of hitting the ground and realizing that I was hearing an approaching shell were simultaneous. The shell burst not more than 100 feet from me. There was no cover so I picked myself up and started running again. There were some light tanks huddled together nearby and we felt they were drawing the fire. They spread apart somewhat and the fire ceased. It was our own artillery. The next event happened not a minute later. An American Navy plane that had been flying overhead all afternoon suddenly cut its motor and dived at us. About 10 people yelled at once, "Dive-bomber!" and started running. So did I. Looking back over my shoulder I could see it pull out of the dive and I knew it had released a bomb. I ran another 1/2 dozen steps and hit the ground again. The bomb struck about 150 yards away. It was a dud. The plane circled for altitude and dived again. This time the bomb struck about 300 yds. away. I was out-running the plane. The second bomb was not a dud. I thought the dirt would never stop coming down. By this time someone had found a yellow smoke grenade and set it off, signifying "Friendly troops." Several planes came over to look at us. I lay on my face, not daring to move, and for the first time on foreign soil, I prayed.

 The balance of the afternoon was fairly quiet except for an occasional burst of fire from the French gunners. Later the Bn. C.O. called the officers together and briefed us on the coming plans. They included a night attack with the objective - the airport which must be taken at all costs so that the P-40’s which took off the “Ranger” could have a place to land. "And" he concluded, "we’ve got to beat the 2nd Bn. there." When I heard that remark, it sickened me to think of the lives that statement might cost for the sake of a little competition.

 I decided to lighten my pack as much as possible and after much  deliberation and profound regret, decided to abandon a bottle of after- shave lotion that was more bottle than lotion. At 2130 hours we moved off. In a double column of men, the columns some 15 yards apart and each man about 5 yards apart, we moved silently down the slope in front of us, flanked the machine guns (if they were still there) and promptly were split forward from rear when a mortar concentration lit about a quarter mile distant. A pre-designated officer, a 1st Lt., took command of my half the columns and we groped forward again. I recall crossing a freshly ploughed field when a machine gun opened up with a frightful closeness. Everyone literally melted into the ground and lay very, very still, and I followed suit. The gun fired bursts that seemed to be going right over my head, and which came from my right rear. I could hear a strange sound coming from a man whose shadowy form could be observed on my left. It was a queer scratching sound that was produced whenever he moved, and I concluded that he was attempting to dig himself in. At the moment, that seemed like a very good idea, and I went on record that night for digging a fox-hole with my bare hands. Fortunately the ground was soft and easily scooped out in the form of a small hole that just enabled my body to sink below the surface. We lay there a long time, it seemed, probably an hour, then the men ahead of me rose to their feet and started to move again.

 I was beginning to be concerned about what would happen to us when the dawn came. Would we find ourselves in the middle of the enemy's camp or just where would we be. I worked my way up to the head of the column in an effort to find out what the situation was. The answer was simple: we were lost. We stopped long enough for several of the officers to huddle under some raincoats and risk using a flashlight to look at the map. While waiting there I saw a phenomenon that I have since never been able to explain. It seemed as though a feeble light, similar to the self generated lights on bicycles, was slowly moving in a line about 25 yards distant. The light would flicker a little, move a distance of perhaps 50 yards across my line of vision then stop and return. As though a man were carrying a small lamp and were walking a post. I called attention to it to another officer, but he failed to see it, as did a soldier standing near me. I'm convinced however, that it did exist and that it was not a  freak of my own imagination.

 Finally the line started to move again. The night was pitch black and there was no sound except the rustle that many feet made when they moved over the ground. A dark blob loomed up ahead of us, some kind of large building. We skirted the edge of it and my line of men walked single file over a large spongy mound. It was a manure pile. Around the building and then it started to rain. I had no raincoat, for earlier in the day I had given mine to a wounded man to use as a blanket while he awaited evacuation. The skies literally opened, we were deluged with water. In a sense I was glad, for it would deaden the sound we made and dampen any offensive ardor that the enemy might have. The line kept moving, past a fringe of woods which were fenced in with a strand of barbed wire, then the line stopped again. I went to the head of the column again and found it was on the edge of a paved road. Several dark blobs on the other side indicated buildings, through the window of one of which was filtering a pale blue glow. The rain continued to pour down and visibility could not have been more than 50 feet. We were wet, shivering, and undecided as to the next course of action.

 Two heavy and one light machine guns were set up on the edge of the road covering the buildings and the road itself. A small patrol was sent across to investigate the buildings. Suddenly the dim lights of an automobile appeared down the road, one machine gun commenced firing and the car swerved, ran off the road and behind the guns. A figure jumped out and into the woods only to reappear almost immediately with several bayonets menacing his back. "Commandant, commandant!" the man protested in a subdued but excited voice. We had captured a thoroughly bewildered French major. He was searched, disarmed and added to our collection of prisoners. Where they all came from remains a mystery to me to this day.
 Then it seemed the war really started. First a door of the building with the light burst open releasing a flood of light. The figure of a man was outlined briefly in the glare, someone screamed, there was a burst of tommy gun fire, an explosion, the door shut and all was as quiet as before. A moment later, one of the machine guns fired again and in what I thought was the glow of a Very pistol flare I saw a man’s figure surrounding the glow, slumped up against the wall of the building, and as the glow faded I could see the figure slip toward the ground. Then silence.

 The first grey light of dawn began to appear in the water-filled sky adding greatly to my fears, but as the light slowly became stronger I could see that the building directly across the road from us was a gas station, a Shell gas station. Then the building with the blue light turned out to be a cafe which had been converted to an aid station. That explained the light. The patrol returned and related that they entered the rear of the aid station, found several French soldiers inside drinking wine. When the French saw the patrol, one tried to run out the front entrance while several tried to escape through another rear exit. The one in front was creeping along the front wall of the building when our machinegunner on my side of the road cut him down at a range of perhaps 30 feet. One bullet was a tracer which pierced his chest and burned out in the wall behind him. Those soldiers who tried the rear escape were either captured or wounded by a grenade that was thrown at them. During the patrol's report, one of our prisoners made a bid for freedom. I can still hear his hobnailed shoes clumping down the macadam road, the cries of "Halt! Halt!" then the brief burst of a submachine gun which nearly cut him in two.

 The time was now about 0600 on the morning of November 10th. The rain had almost ceased leaving us a sorry looking bunch of liberators or conquerors or what have you. A few of the terrified townspeople timidly waited for us to cross the road. Their first words were the question "Allemand?", fearing that from our green fatigues we wore and the new type helmet that we were German. "Non, Americain" we replied. That was the signal for fervent rejoicing which had to be short lived since we found from the people that we were behind the French lines. A young Frenchman plucked at my sleeve and from the little French I remembered from high-school, understood that he wanted me to come with him. I shoved the muzzle of my tommy gun in his back and against his natural protests we started off. "Hah" I thought, "this bird doesn't know it but I've got the safety on, he's in no danger." I cradled the trigger in the crook of my finger. All he wanted to show me was that there were no more soldiers left behind the building and that the little house in the rear was the residence of an old couple and a young mother and child. The old woman hastened back in the house and brought out a bottle of very delicious banana nectar which she poured into a tiny glass. Now, I had been thoroughly schooled in the tricks hostile civilians might play on unsuspecting American soldiers, such as poisoning drinks and such, but at this stage of my war adventure, I was so cold and wet and tired that poisoning would have been a welcome relief for me. I drank the liqueur which warmed me pleasantly and thanked the donor in my humble French. We returned to the cafe where I discovered that the safety had not been on my weapon and that a very little greater pressure of my finger would have sent a stream of .45 slugs into that Frenchman’s back. Later he showed me in greatest secrecy a little ivory tomb with a broken swastika on it that he had carved. Everyone was making the "V" sign to us and when they saw our book matches with the "V" on them they gasped at our audacious display of this "verboten" symbol.

 Some of the troops had found a large French van parked nearby, that was filled with rifles, ammunition, and several kegs of red wine. We attempted to smash some of the rifles on the curbing, but succeeded only in breaking the stocks, so we soon discovered it would be simpler to place a guard on the vehicle and leave the equipment there. The name of the town we found was Port Lyautey, the airport was several miles distant, and a large body of enemy were between us and the objective. Our strength was 8 officers and 118 men - we had 220 prisoners. We also found that we were surrounded on three sides by an unsuspecting enemy and a suicidal escape route of open ground should we choose to withdraw. Our position was precarious to say the least, and ours was a doubtful honor indeed to know that we were the first, and only, Americans in the city.

 We had no communications whatsoever with Bn.rear hq. or with Regiment, since the rain had thoroughly wet the radios and our wire line was broken. A messenger was dispatched later in the day to attempt to slip through the lines and inform headquarters of our plight. This man, a corporal, was a remarkable person indeed to even volunteer for the mission, but he did the impossible and managed to get through, as we found later. We posted a few security outposts and the main body moved farther in the town to the top of a small knoll, establishing our C.P. in the yard of a dwelling. For a time we sat there, the officers trying to work out a suitable plan for our honorable survival. About 0900 we saw several French soldiers about a block away calmly setting up a machine gun pointed in our direction. Our quick thinking, 1st Lt., C.0. had the prisoners moved up in front of us as a shield, instructed to wave their undershirts or any white cloth. This act confused our enemy. After a time, they moved the gun to another flank. We countered by moving the prisoners again. It was like a ridiculous game of chess, but it was far from funny at the time.

 In about an hour we saw approaching us a small body of the enemy bearing a white flag. They came halfway and stopped. Our C.O. sent out, and accompanied, a small body of officers and an interpreter to see what was wanted. A French colonel was in the group and from a conversation with one of the officers who was at the meeting, I am informed they demanded our surrender. Our reply was a definite "No." We explained (and this was purely a lie) that we were only a small advance party at the head of some 65,000 troops coming up from Rabat and that we also had 75 tanks coming up to us. The colonel was impressed but complained that we were using German tactics in that we used prisoners as a shield. Our reply was simply that it is only common sense to realize that unless we did, we would be shot. Then the colonel proposed that if we would guarantee the safety of his men in our hands, he would withdraw his regiment back to barracks and await the arrival of our main force so that he could arrange for a surrender. He would not surrender to us. When I learned we had been opposed by a regiment, it made me feel very definitely weak. But at least we had a new lease on life for the remainder of the day.

 From the time of this first, unofficial armistice between the French and Americans until later in the day, we were besieged with happy civilians who gave the men wine, chicken and bread, also plenty of fruit. Having eaten only two K rations since I had left the boat the food was a welcome supplement. Then an English speaking civilian informed me that the colonel with whom we had concluded the armistice was a wily old rascal who secretly planned to attack us during the night. He felt that if we could get a car and run the French outpost line to secure even one tank or more troops to support our statements, that the act would be enough to deter the colonel's plan. I reported this to the acting C.O. who thought the plan feasible and OK'd my volunteering to accompany the car. Unfortunately this plan was never carried out, the only car in town that was in running condition had a dead battery. There was another car farther in the town, but I was not risking leaving the protection of our few machine guns to go hunting it. I turned back to the C.O. to inform him of new information of the time of the planned attack. He was asleep. I woke him up and in no uncertain terms reminded him that I had some responsibility toward some of our men and that all I wanted to know was exactly what he planned to do if an attack took place. He replied, "We'll fire till all the ammunition is gone and then we'll surrender.” and promptly went back to sleep. I was so disgusted that I thought, ”Oh, the hell with it!" and went over to the porch of another house, lay down on the cold concrete and tried to sleep.

 At about 0200 on the morning of Nov. 11th I awakened unable to sleep longer. My bed was too cold. I strolled over to the C.P. and there stood a U.S.Army 2 1/2 ton truck! Several men were unloading rations and water cans. Amazed I asked one of the Sgts. who was unloading it, what it meant. He then told me that the war was over, that at 1100 the official armistice would be signed. Asked how he found us he replied that our messenger had gotten back to the headquarters and reported our location. I had a drink of water and went back to my concrete bed to sleep - happy. I couldn't sleep, and spent the rest of the night talking to one of the sentries, but I was still happy. My civilian informer had disappeared.

 Wednesday, November 12th, was like a holiday. The men ate their fill of "C" rations, washed and shaved, cleaned their weapons, and spent the day talking to the civilians in the neighborhood. Several officers and myself walked back to the spot where we had been fired on by a machine gun the night of the 9th, and found two of our men. One was a rifleman the other a company aid man. The aid man had been shot through the head and died instantly, the other had been shot in the thigh and had bled to death quickly. The Arabs had already stripped the bodies of their outer garments and shoes. We had them buried in shallow graves on the spot, and erected small wood crosses to mark them. The remainder of the day I spent cleaning my tommy gun and trying to clean up as much as the limited facilities would allow.

 On Thursday, the 13th, I ventured into the remainder of the town of Port Lyautey to see what the place looked like. There was no damage done to the town proper, and the people seemed quite calm. The officer who accompanied me and I went to a barber shop where we took turns in getting a haircut and shave. In this manner we could keep an eye on the barber as well as other civilians who were curious about Americans. Actually they were friendly enough but we couldn’t quite bring ourselves to trust them yet. After the barber had finished with us came the matter of paying, and since we had no French money, we settled by giving him some small change (American currency) that we had. A trip to the State Bank of Morocco was my first experience in dealing with exchange rates. There we received 43 francs to the dollar, the last quoted figure, and since the new official rate of exchange had not yet been announced we settled for the Bank’s quotation. I exchanged five dollars, gold seal invasion currency, and had a pocket full of francs. We returned to the area in time to see the regimental commander visit us. I asked him when I could return to my company and he said he would notify the company commander I was OK and to return the next day.

Finally on Friday I managed to get back to my company, which along with the rest of the regiment had moved into a bivouac area in the Foret de Mamora, on the outskirts of town. We called it the "Cork Forest". Apparently the regimental commander had forgotten all about me and had not notified anyone that I was alive. The company thought I was dead, had me officially listed as missing, and had gone so far as to contact the chaplain to find if my name had appeared on any of the casualty records. That evening was a happy one for me, the officers and some of the non- coms sat around a small fire until it was dark, talking of our several experiences. I had pitched my tent and slept warm and dry for the first time since I had stepped foot on foreign soil.

 During the period that followed, my life was wholly concerned with company administration, censoring of the men's mail, small tactical problems, maintaining communications for the regiment (until they were able to obtain their own switchboards), and a host of other small details. Obviously it would be impossible for me to relate my actions there in chronological order since I never attempted to keep a diary. I shall endeavor to set down in writing as many of the more interesting incidents as I can, but not necessarily in the order in which they occurred.

 From "D" day until a much later period, the password was "George Patton". And from the number of amusing, but what could easily have been serious, incidents arising from the attempted use of the term, it was soon referred to as "George Patton-Bang!" I recall one night that I had just undressed and wiggled into my sleeping bag, when there was a cry of, "George!" a silence, "George!", followed by a burst of B.A.R. fire. Then a cry of, "Bring up a jeep with headlights!" And then, "Bring up the .50 calibers!" From the excitement that was prevailing, the entire company was alerted, one would have imagined that we were being counter-attacked on a major scale. It turned out however, that an excited, trigger-happy guard had challenged the shadow of a cow, receiving no reply he had fired on it, and when the poor beast ran off, the guard thought he was being surrounded by a patrol. Some men were so excited on night guard duty that often they would fire spontaneously on a person even after he had received the reply "Patton" to his challenge. Hence "George-Patton-Bang!"

 One night we were awakened by an excited cry for an ambulance. It turned out that about a mile from us on the Rabat-Port Lyautey road, there had been a ghastly auto accident. A 3/4 ton weapons carrier had crashed head-on with a jeep. One vehicle caught fire and the casualty toll was four men killed, two very seriously injured, and several more with minor injuries. The drivers of the vehicles had been drinking, which may have accounted for the unreasonable speed of the vehicles, but may or may not have been responsible for the collision itself. The families of the dead men were notified, "Killed in action". There is no sense in casting shame on a dead man. My outfit was decent about such things.

 The first hectic days of life in the Cork Forest were filled with daily trips to the beaches, and to the former resort area called Mehdia Plage, to scavenge equipment that had been left behind. My company managed to find 17 light machine guns that had been mounted on assault craft and since the Navy was no longer interested in them we cleaned them up and mounted them on our jeeps. The "brass" approved. In my spare moments I would wander around the dock areas of the port "scrounging" equipment, and anything else that the company needed. Our port authorities had hired a great many "Yogis" or Arabs for the manual labor. By and large they were a filthy, thieving lot, but they turned out a fairly creditable performance if one of our soldiers would stand over them with a club. Several of them were caught eating T.N.T., and one of them ate a half can of lye before he realized something was wrong. In the hospital he said he had thought it was salt. I believe he lived. The Arabs, for all their emaciated appearance, were incredibly strong and hardy. I have seen one carry on his back two 200 lb. bags of flour for a distance of 150 feet or so. The wretch couldn’t have weighed more than 120 lbs. On a trip to Casablanca, one of our officers saw a half dozen of them trying to load a crated Wright Whirlwind airplane engine on the back of another. And they would have succeeded too, if an American hadn't intervened. The fact that such a weight would have undoubtedly killed the unfortunate Arab didn't concern the others in the least.

 In my spare time I used to roam around the town looking for souvenirs to send my wife. I found purses of Moroccan leather, gold belts and slippers of Arab design, and other trinkets. It was fantastic the way prices soared on these articles. I purchased a handbag for my wife at a cost of about eight or ten dollars (75 francs/dollar), and in six months time the same article was selling in Oran for about $125.00. This pastime caused me to mention in a letter to my wife, "Isn't this a hell of a way to fight a war - shopping for ladies' pocketbooks?"

 As December approached we had increasing periods of rainy weather. It wasn't bitterly cold, but the rain was almost a constant occurrence. Some days there would be an hour of rain followed by 10 minutes of sunshine, followed by another hour of rain, and so on through the day. Invariably it would rain the entire night. Our clothing mildewed badly and we were infested with some kind of beetles which delighted in chewing our clothing to tatters. Many of the officers and men had dug fox-holes and had built up their tents over them. I never had the ambition I guess and contented myself with just an ordinary pup-tent. But some of the "homes" were quite stylish in a masculine sense. We were not allowed open fires at night but a blanket and the tent helped shield the glow of several candles and we could play poker or censor mail or have bull- sessions as late as we pleased without fear of detection from the air. We were all suffering the pangs of homesickness, but generally there was enough to keep us busy during the day so that we were too tired at night to do more than write a letter or two and go to bed.

 We had turkey for Thanksgiving, with all the trimmings. The only trouble was I believe they made the birds fly to us from the States, but it was a welcome change from "B" rations and SPAM! And I go on record here for saying that they did supply Spam to us in five pound tins. I don't care how much the Army may deny it, or call it luncheon meat, or how much the Hormel Co. may claim they never packaged Spam in such containers, the tins were marked Spam, they were five pound sizes, and by God, it *was* SPAM!

 One day an order came around the regiment that we were to send out parties of officers and men to surrounding Arab villages and search them for American weapons. It was suspected that a number had been pilfered by the natives from the battlefields. I was designated as one of the officers to conduct a search party and although we had no Arab interpreters with us, it was quite an interesting adventure. The Arabs lived in tent villages of 15 to 20 families, the chief's tent being larger and generally cleaner than the rest. The procedure was simple, all we did was advance on the village from all directions to prevent any of the inhabitants from getting away, then go from tent to tent and thoroughly search the interiors. Regardless of our efforts many of the villagers did manage to escape us although I doubt if they had anything more than sundry collections of G.I. clothing. One tent that I entered was full of women who were sitting around weaving cloth. They seemed very excited although there was no screaming or hysterics. I realized that I had probably invaded the sanctity of the chief's harem and beat a hasty retreat. None of the women were good-looking anyway. It struck me that the real thing is a far cry from the Hollywood version. One of the venerable old patriarchs of one village insisted on having us drink with him a concoction in honor of our visit. I hesitated but then decided it might be poor taste and frowned upon, so I accepted and we sat on the ground in the accepted fashion. From a nearby tent there was carried an old pewter teapot and some of the dirtiest glasses I've ever been obliged to drink from. I counted on the brew being hot enough to kill any germs that must have been collected on the glasses. The tea was a mint flavor, something like spearmint and was sweetened almost beyond my ability to drink it. I recalled that somewhere in the East there was a custom that if one left some of the drink in his cup it was an indication that he wanted no more, so I sipped about three-quarters of mine and waited. Apparently the old man was waiting for me to finish it, so after a few awkward moments I downed the rest and he immediately refilled my glass. He would have given me a third cup, but I thought, ”to hell with custom” and motioned very clearly that I had had quite enough. Our search proved fruitless.

 None of our regiment was ever aware of the Casablanca Conference until one day we were alerted to prepare to receive a distinguished visitor. We were given no clue of the identity of who it would be except that we had a number of practice reviews, which indicated to us that from the extent of preparations it must be a high ranking general at least. The appointed day arrived and as usual was mixed with a little rain and a lot of cold breezes. The regiment was assembled in a large open area about 1130 hours. Individuals rations were issued and we continued to stand out in the open, in formation, until about 1500. A full battalion of troops were posted all over the landscape and all Arabs were chased out of the vicinity. Finally, from the direction of Rabat we noticed a number of large black American cars approaching, heavily escorted by M.P’s on motorcycles, and as I recall there was even some armored cars. The visitors took their places on the far edge of the field and the review commenced. As my company of armored vehicles and self-propelled guns passed the reviewing stand, a man dressed in civilian clothes saluted us, smiled and then a puff of wind blew his hat off. He laughed then. It was the President of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. I thought that he looked awfully tired and drawn, but there was a certain resoluteness in his appearance that indicated he was quite aware of the seriousness of the war and was determined to see it through. I was pleased that he had so deigned to honor us and felt that our wait had been amply justified. The only incongruous thought that persisted in my mind was that it seemed a shame that I had to come all the way to Africa to see the President of my own Nation.

 During the period just before Christmas, we threw a party for the French. It was held in the Mairie, or City Hall. Naturally there was plenty of champagne, red and white wines and stronger stuff if one desired it. At that time champagne was too much of a novelty to me to pass it up so I confined my drinking to it. The party was a success I suppose, if inebriety was any index to the degree of our efforts, and by midnight all the Americans as well as 90% of the French were feeling no pain, whatsoever.
 The next morning was most dismal for the entire command, and we all had hazy recollections of such scenes of the night before as the regimental commander being soundly slapped on the back in an affectionate manner by a warrant officer, junior grade, and enjoying the camaraderie. Indeed it is ever thus: "The price we pay for fleeting pleasure Far exceeds an equal measure."
Or something like that.

 Christmas Day arrived in the Cork Forest, but mail, packages, and the promise of turkey for dinner all failed to materialize. The regiment gave every company 40 gallons of "Vino" or red wine, and my company had already purchased 50 gallons, so that plus what the men themselves had purchased was enough to completely anesthetize every man. In a moment of weakness, I remained sober, and what a ghastly mistake that was. The day was a drunken orgy as far as I was concerned, filled with scenes of men trying to crawl to the chow line, the company commander burning off his eyebrows and lashes trying to determine the amount of wine in a keg by sticking a lighted match into the bung-hole, and the Chaplain misled into believing the company was filled with religious men simply because they sang Christmas Carols so lustily that night. Fortunately it was dark and he was unable to see that most of them had to sing from a prone position. I determined I should never remain sober again - if everyone else decided to get crocked. It took an air raid alert to the effect that enemy planes were raiding Casablanca in order to stop the festivities. I managed to get the company C.O. to bed, one other officer who was sober too, managed to get the men away from the .50 calibers on the half-tracks and thus prevent a mass slaughter if they had imagined they heard an airplane. December 26th was very subdued.

 By and large, we were fairly happy during our stay in Port Lyautey. The town was fairly clean, it was certainly modern in appearance, the people warmed up to us considerably after we had proved we could behave properly, we listened nightly to Sally, "The bitch of Berlin", as we dubbed her, and there was no sign of war where we were. It was a long way to the Kasserine Pass. One night I heard Sally announce, "The next song is dedicated to all the American boys who are fighting in Africa, and it is called, 'I've Got A Feeling You’re Fooling'". At that time the 1st Armored Division was getting the hell knocked out of it in Tunisia. But our good fortune couldn’t last forever, we were over to do a job and it wasn't finished yet, so accordingly the day arrived for us to move out. We headed northeast, for Tlemcen, Algeria.

 Some of the regiment made the move to Tlemcen by rail, I went by jeep. We were bivouacked near a Spanish-type farm villa about 16 miles from the city. It was around February, 1943. The life there was purely routine, with an occasional patrol over near the border of Spanish Morocco to make sure that those people weren't slipping across and wondering about us. About all that I recall of my stay there was that I sent a little Valentine Day poem to my wife, and I first heard the recording of "Dearly Beloved" on a cracked and battered phonograph. The franc rate changed too, it dropped to 50 to the dollar and we all had a chance to convert our gold seal currency at 75 and purchase money orders at the rate of 50. I made about 90 dollars on the deal.

 Suddenly on about the 18th of February my company was alerted to move. It seemed that all the Division artillery plus two Cannon companies were to get in on some kind of a private war that evidently didn't concern the rest of the regiment. I was on the advance party for that move and preceded the rest by about a day. We went up to Oran where I noticed that "Yankee Doodle Dandy" was being shown to the troops there. I never did get to see the film. Then we hit the coastal road headed east, passed thru the rest of Algeria and into Tunisia. It was a hard, cold trip. We tried keeping the wind and rain out of the jeeps by using shelter halves and blankets, but they didn't work so well. One day we had covered over a hundred miles or so and pulled into the area about 1600. The town was Taza, in Algeria. We found billets for our party, spent the night with some Air Force men stationed there and had dinner in their officers club. They had a most luxurious set up for they had evicted the town prostitutes from their place of business, cleaned it up and had fine beds to sleep in. Most of the men were anxious to see some action, but I figured they were pretty lucky to be where they were. I liked Taza, although it was just a little mountain village. Later we entered another area, and the main body failed to catch us until about 2300 that night. I had no supper, pitched a tent and went to sleep. At 0330 I was awakened and told to prepare to move out ahead again. It was pouring rain. I dressed by the aid of a pencil flashlite, rolled my bedroll in the tent (and that is a herculean effort), and in order to strike the tent, all I had to do was stand up. The pegs were only stuck in a deep, muddy ooze. I gathered the wet tent in my arms, shoved it into the jeep, loaded my roll and was ready to leave at a few minutes after four. Gradually the rain stopped as it became lighter, and although the day was miserably cold, we dried out somewhat. We stopped once in a small Arab village and had coffee to warm us. The building was unheated, and the coffee was only lukewarm but it helped. We each drank about six cups in an effort to approximate one standard size American coffee cup. The Arabs probably thought we were coffee fiends. I recall too, that on that journey we passed through Oujda, which was 5th U.S. Army Headquarters. Although that town is 90% Arab I still think it one of the prettiest towns In Africa.

 After four days and four hours of travel, during which time we had covered 777 miles we arrived at Thala, Tunisia. It was about 2000 hours on the 21st of February. We could see the gun flashes up forward and knew that some sort of battle was taking place. I saw some British tankers coming down the road toward us with a bunch of disabled tanks. We asked them where they were going and they replied they were getting out while there were still a few of them left. We wondered what the hell we were doing going in the opposite direction. Around midnight we moved up into previously assigned positions. My company was to guard the right flank of our artillery against possible tank threat. We were to open fire at 0600. The enemy consisted of the 10th, 15th, and 21st Panzer Divisions which had broken through the Kasserine Pass and were driving for Tebessa, our vital supply and communications base about 25 miles to our rear. Loss of Tebessa would threaten our success in Africa. About 0630 on the 22nd our artillery opened fire. The counter battery we received was in such volume as I've never seen equaled by German artillery since. The German guns out-fired us at least 15 shells to our 1 from the time we commenced firing until we ceased at 1730 that day. Never for a period even as brief as 30 seconds was it safe to come out from cover. We lay under little rock ledges on the reverse slope of a hill and prayed that we would be safe. I could see an artilleryman not 75 yards from me get almost a direct hit. He lived long enough to jump into a foxhole that was already occupied. They lifted him out of it later.

 Our cooks huddled in their kitchen truck and in spite of a direct hit on our maintenance vehicle not 10 yards away, they managed to turn out three hot meals that day. The shelling was so heavy that I would take my Sgt.'s mess kit, get food for both of us, and he would then wash the two mess kits. In that manner It was only necessary for each of us to expose ourselves once.

 I spent most of the day under a rock ledge with two of my Sgts. Several times it was necessary for me to go about 500 yards to the artillery Bn.C.P. to keep abreast of the situation. The Bn.C.O's command car was thoroughly demolished by a direct hit. His driver who was sitting in it was injured slightly. It takes a war to demonstrate miracles. We were further harassed by Stukas which came over and tried to bomb out our artillery positions. During this battle, the British artillery which consisted of 17 and 25 pounders, were on the forward side of our hill. Every one of their guns was knocked out. It was after that display of sacrifice for us that I decided that the British never owed us any war debt. The British soldier displays a certain tenacity in battle that makes him an excellent defensive fighter. Their tanks were hopelessly outclassed by the German ones, and out-numbered too, but they never hesitated to ”have another go at them” whenever it was thought necessary. They would send out six and maybe one would get back. Our artillery must have been effective though, for the Germans were stopped. About 1730 some dozen or so A-20's passed over us, and although I don’t know what they did to the enemy, he stopped firing shortly after their visit.

 The next morning, our artillery fired a few rounds and I fully expected an answering concentration, but there was no sound from Jerry's side. We found later that he had pulled out over night and had broken contact with us. We were not a force to follow him since we had few infantry troops with us, ours had been a job to stop the enemy advance, but not to exploit our success. Our air harassed his retreating columns though and with good results. We stayed several days in the area of Thala, ate British ”Compo” rations, which is their version of our field rations. I think maybe we copied the British style in our ”U” or 10 in 1 rations. The terrain was bleak and barren as only the Tunisian hills can be, and the wind and rain swept over them with nothing to turn its fury. During mid afternoon the sun would come out for a little while and actually warm us somewhat, but by 1700, it had lost its strength and the night would get bitterly cold. My sleeping bag and pup tent helped keep me warm, but I know that a lot of the enlisted men were cold all the time.

 Finally we left the area and proceeded to Join our regiment which had moved out of the Tlemcen bivouac to an area near an advance fighter base at Feriana, Tunisia. This was not too far from Gafsa and Maknassy. The terrain was characteristically miserable - rocky, barren. We stayed there a few days and watched German planes come over regularly to strafe and bomb the airport. They never bothered us. One day I was sent to 1st Armored Division Headquarters for a message. All I was told was to tell the regimental commander that ”D-day has been postponed two days”, that was all. I got back to regiment late that night and delivered the message in person to the "old man”, then unrolled my bedding on the slope of a hill, pulled my tent over me without pitching it and tried to sleep. A torrential downpour in the middle of the night almost washed me away.

 Again I was sent out ahead of the rest to find a bivouac area for the regiment. The area selected by higher headquarters allotted us a 25 square mile area on an open plain that lay like a saucer in the mountains. It was about 10 miles north of Gafsa. There was Italian artillery in the mountains to the east but they were out of range. Several ME 109's came over to look at the billeting party but they apparently were not interested enough to even strafe us. We appreciated their lack of interest, for they had caught us flat-footed. The regiment arrived late that night and went to its assigned areas, also a combat command of the 1st Armored Division came in. The camp was quiet. Then it started to rain. I was out inspecting the company positions when the rain started and before I could get back to the C.P. my jeep had mired down. The 1st Sgt. and I tied my shelter half to the side of the jeep and tried to sleep under it. It was like trying to sleep in a cold shower. By morning, that portion of the American Army was bogged down. Not a vehicle could move, everything and everybody was completely wet, and still it rained. By mid-day the rain had stopped and with the help of a strong breeze, the ground soon dried out enough to allow our vehicles to move along the road, but we were still unable to maneuver the tanks.

 Finally we started to move and the first objective was Station de Sened which was taken with very little trouble. Then we moved out of the mountains and into another plain to the little town of Maknassy. I may add here that practically all of our movement was done at night, for the enemy still had air superiority. Only in extreme emergency did we ever have a convoy move during hours of daylight. After clearing through the town we moved on to the range of mountains to the east for a night attack. The objective was to capture the high ground that over-looked the north south road near Mazzouna. 


The manuscript ended here.

Later, 1st Lt. Smith was part of the invasion of Sicily. While with the 9th Division in Sicily, he received a transfer from infantry into intelligence where he worked at SHAEF (Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force) in England.   He entered France on D-Day + 3 (or 4).  His unit later crossed into Germany, where he saw the concentration camps shortly after their liberation.

Colonel Smith passed away in 2003 ... on Pearl Harbor Day.

Since then....

My mother-in-law (now in her 90s) had written some of her memories, which I posted on my website.  They are of memories growing up during the Great Depression and those of World War Two.

There links are here:

The Great Depression 1929 - 1945

The Great Depression 1929 - 1945  Part 2

World War Two - before, during, and after

The Greatest Generation is part of America's Story!


Other posts in this series:

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for stopping by, I sent an email as request. Cheers, Susan