Landes de Bussac, France
What I remember most are the trees in the background
I was assigned to the First Platoon of the 581st Engineer Company (Field Maintenance) with our company headquarters located in Chinon, a hundred or so miles north of us. The camp had been an airfield during WWII used by the Lufwaffe. When I got there, the airfield was overgrown with weeds, the buildings used for storage of some kind. It was not a large base but had all the amenities, so my first two and a half months were not that difficult. I remember a Base Exchange where, with what little was left in my paycheck after paying my fine, I could buy the things I needed with a bit left over for an occasional visit to my favorite spot, a canteen operated by the Polish Guards. They had fled their homeland when the Nazis invaded and fought on the Allies side from England. They worked as guards with the idea that they and their families would be allowed to enter the USA after serving out their contracts. The beet was fantastic and I got hooked on the Kielbasa on fresh-baked rolls.
Harold and I found ourselves somewhat as outsiders. We were both from California while every other member of the platoon, from the Lieutenant to the lowest Private First Class was from somewhere in Dixie. They never let us forget that with the Confederate flag everywhere one looked. And, it took both of us a while to get used to some of the thickest “Ya-ahls” I ever heard. And, far from what I expected, the whites got along just great with the few blacks assigned to the platoon. They shared the platoon bay, the latrines, the messhall tables and everything else as equals. And, unlike some places I experienced many years later, the blacks didn't separate themselves from the whites. More of that later.
I worked repairing heavy construction equipment belonging to the engineer battalion we were attached to. I had a simple problem; while I knew the theory of how to repair and fix various problems, I was/am a total klutz when it came to actually doing it. If it should’ve taken fifteen minutes to replace a part, it took me thirty or more. To me, the best part of the job was driving or operating the equipment once it was repaired. For example, I’d driven a caterpillar tractor on the ranch, a small one. But, after fixing something on a big one, I got to drive that and it was really neat.
The engineer battalion spent most of its time practicing. There wasn’t a whole lot to do in the immediate area. I can’t remember when, but there was an earthquake in Lebanon and elements of the battalion were sent there to help clean up the mess. I seem to remember going along and stopping at the airport in Athens along the way. We only got off the plane while it refueled but were able to see the Parthenon from a distance. Lebanon, although torn up from the earthquake, was actually a very pretty place and it was clear why so many tourists came to the beaches. We were all too busy to sightsee, the few of us working around the clock to keep the equipment running. Everyone busted their butts trying to clear away rubble to find any survivors – and to recover the bodies. We returned to France after only a week or so. The equipment went by ship and we flew in propeller planes - I think they were C-130 Hercules which, at that time, were quite new.
The next time the platoon deployed was to Morocco for another major earthquake. I didn’t get to go along that time as I was no longer a mechanic.
I’d taken typing in elementary school and was stupid enough to put it down when I was processed into the army. The platoon’s supply clerk was due to leave and his replacement had not yet been found. The platoon leader and sergeant reviewed the records of all men in the platoon. At the same time, they asked for someone to volunteer to fill in temporarily for the supply clerk until a full-time replacement came in.
I ended up being “volunteered” for the job, partly because of the typing on my record but mainly because of my lack of proficiency as a wrench turner. Knowing and doing were, of course, two different things. Besides, with what I knew, the parts area was just up my alley.
So, I took the job and did well. It took little time to learn the ropes and the platoon leader was so pleased he helped me get PFC stripes as soon as I could.
But, I should’ve known! A replacement showed up from the company and the lieutenant called me into his office. He told me how pleased he was with the job I’d done and then explained the unit clerk was leaving and he wanted me to replace him. What could I say? You don’t turn down “requests” from the man who controls your destiny.
We had a strange situation in many ways. We were totally dependent upon the battalion for almost everything. We maintained our own records and supposedly reported directly to the company commander. However, the unit clerk worked in battalion headquarters with their personnel section. So, off I went.
I cannot remember anything about the battalion commander or even his Adjutant General, the guy in charge of all administrative and personnel matters. I do know the personnel officer was a senior warrant officer who’d been around, as we said, since Washington led the troops across the Delaware. My immediate supervisor was another Korea vet who was also a native-born Hawaiian. I’m not certain but seem to remember his name was SFC Kapalua. I once saw his real-entire name and it was so long it took up three lines on the form.
Surprising, at least to me, I quickly learned the job. The hardest part was typing without making errors. We had that white correcting fluid but most things had to be done with no strike-overs or errors. I often spent a lot of time painfully going through forms, filling the “file 13” more than once.
My job was to keep the personnel records up to date of the guys in the platoon and ensure the platoon leader was kept up to date on things that effected them. I also made out the unit morning report, a document that every military unit fills out. It had to be completed by a specific time, always very early, and I usually got it to the lieutenant just as they started the day working in the shop. SFC K would check it out and add it to the ones for the battalion after the lieutenant signed ours. I also had to maintain the platoon monthly pay reports. Our pay came from company and it was my responsibility that each and every individual had the right deductions. In those day, we paid for our laundry and always had someone asking for some kind of donation.
Payday was probably the most looked-forward to day of each month. A lieutenant would pick up our pay, which was in script. We weren’t allowed to be paid in US dollars but received military script to be used on any and all military facilities. So, how did we buy stuff off-base? We were allowed to exchange limited amounts of script for Francs. Of course, few businesses around the base or in town where we congregated refused to accept script.
The lieutenant would arrive wearing a sidearm with the sergeant, also armed. We dressed up in our dress uniforms and lined up before the pay table. It was a combination of inspection and checking us over. As the clerk, I sat at the table going down the payroll with the pay officer, ensuring each individual received what was on the list. I, of course, got paid last.
The pay wasn’t very much and mine was less, as a hefty percent went home to Duple. I didn’t want to but sorta got pushed into it. All she would’ve had to do was write my CO and I could’ve got into a lot of trouble for not sending money to her.
As any ex-military type will tell you, we lived month-to-month, paycheck-to-paycheck, I was usually stone broke by mid-month.
I also kept track of leave for the troops and was the one to fill out overnight passes and leaves of absence. You can imagine how popular that made me with the other members of the platoon. It also kept those senior from me from making life too difficult. It didn’t excuse me from things like charge of quarters, but I didn’t have to spend hours on cleaning details.
To follow: At last I get to leave the base and visit exotic France!