US Army Retired

US Army Retired

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Further Adventures in France

I quickly settled into my job and military life. Our unit was small so I got to know every member – probably more so than the others as I had access to all their military and personal histories.

Everybody in the platoon but Harold and I were from the Deep South. One of the guys was Ralph Spagnuolo of Italian heritage, but he too was from somewhere in the South – surprising as I always thought of Italians and New York City. Everyone called him Pappy and he invited me to go with him to a place on the Italian coast where his family was from. I was going to pass it up as I didn't have a whole lot of money. “Don't worry about it,” he told me, “We can do it on the cheap.” Through the on-base Special Services, we bought Third Class train tickets. A Donut Dolly also gave us tips on how to travel as cheaply as possible. We exchanged our entire month's paycheck in U.S. Dollars – getting special permission from our platoon leader to do so.

We carried backpacks with changes of clothing and ponchos for the daily European rain showers. With our GI haircuts, clothes and shoes, nobody was going to identify us as anything but American GIs. We caught the shuttle bus into Bordeaux and walked the mile or so to the big, gray, iron and glass train station. One of the tips we'd received was to buy snacks and stuff from the stands outside the station and definitely NOT on board the train. We also bought a bottle of cheap red wine to quench our thirsts. Our Post Exchange Swiss Army knives took care of the corkscrew need.

Only the very well-to-do French had cars in 1959. Most were either the Citroën “Gangster Wagon” as we liked to call the Avante [see picture below] that always caught my attention as the way the front doors opened or the little “upside-down-washboard” car whose name I can't remember.

Everyone else traveled by bus or train so the station was huge with endless tracks. Even back then, the Europeans provided pictures to help travelers – although I always got the impression the French did so begrudgingly. We had little trouble finding the right train. Aw c'mon now? You don't expect me to remember the route we took do you?

I do remember the Third Class seats were wood, but shaped so it wasn't too bad. I also quickly discovered that our backpacks made excellent cushions, not only to sit on but to use as a pillow. We left early in the afternoon and passed through miles of countryside with open fields or wooded areas, interspersed with towns and villages. It was certainly a far cry from the sprawl of houses I grew up with in Southern California. We seemed to stop at every single village along the way with lots of people getting on and off.

Oh yeah – there were express trains but were a bit too steep for our limited budgets.

As neither of us spoke more than a bit of “Bar room French” we got lots of dirty looks from everyone, especially the conductor who clearly showed his disgust every time he came by to once again check our tickets. I figured Ralph knew a little bit or that his Italian might help us. Oh yeah? He didn't speak a word of Italian.

My parents came to the States to be Americans, not Italians. They never spoke Italian in front of me and made it a point that English was our language.”

Every once in a while, French Gendarmes would board to pass through the cars checking passports. We only carried our US Army ID Cards as all European nations accepted them as valid ID and we didn't even need visas to go from France to Italy.

Passing into Italy was truly like entering a new country!

The grayness of France disappeared in an instant. The people. Their clothes. Their attitude. The towns and villages. The Italian policemen who came on board, smiled at us and one even tried to speak English. He was curious at Ralph's name and beamed with delight to learn we were going to visit the village his family came from. He even took the time to write down some directions as to which train depot to change to what train and some other tips on getting to where we were going.

And the train passengers surprised us beyond belief. They welcomed us! Americans! Their friends. Their liberators. An Italian family moved into the seats around us and freely shared their food and wine. All eagerly tried to ask us about America using universal sign language. They also happily tried to teach us Italian. And several of the attractive young Italian lasses smiled as to warm our “souls.”

It took us almost two full days to reach a small fishing village on the western coast of Italy. In addition to our backpacks, we each now had a colorful blanket-poncho and cloth traveling bags for food and other little things. Almost everybody in our car rose to shake our hands and some of the ladies kissed us. One family was getting off at our station and took us in hand, insisting that they be our guides. They, of course, recognized the name Spagnolo and it turned out they were related to Ralph – as was almost every individual living in the village.

I don't remember Ralph's grandfather's name but we were greeted as the wandering sons returning from a far land. Even the village priest was a relative. There was no staying in a hotel or inn. We were led to probably the biggest house in the village where the Patron, another relative, made us welcome. He was something like the assistant mayor, had some impressive college degrees, and spoke pretty good English. We each had a huge bedroom with 18' ceilings and a big four-poster beds covered with feather comforters. A maid even came to take away our kinda ratty clothes, a manservant replacing them with a complete casual outfit – it seemed one of the Patron's boys had gone to Rome and those were his clothes.

We had only taken two week's leave and the train trip took two days each way. That meant we could only stay for 12 days. I don't think the party stopped from the time we arrived until the time we left. Ralph was family. And, because I was his friend and we served together, so was I.

We went out on a fishing boat a couple of times – I think it was a way to find out if Ralph had lost the instincts of his ancestors. At least neither of us got seasick and we worked as hard as we could, not exactly being sailors or fishermen.

The food? I won't even try to describe the amazing smells, aromas, tastes or just plain delight of the endless dishes placed before us.

Mangiare! Bere!” The demands to eat and drink filled our ears. And everyone wanted to dance. Dances that Ralph and I had absolutely no idea how to do. But, that didn't matter. We were hauled into the village plaza or patios or porches to make total fools of ourselves.

The time came to leave. The conductor looked at us in amazement as we made our rounds of so many people there to send us off. Hugs and kisses and handshakes. It was truly a time of sadness at such a wonderful time coming to an end. We waved back as the train pulled away from the depot. Neither of us spoke during the long train ride back to Bordeaux. We were too busy remembering the wonderful time we'd had and the superb people we'd met.

And no! There's no way I'm going into details of just how wonderful some of our encounters had been. That's none of your business.

A Different Type of Tour

During two summers before my enlistment in the US Army, my Boy Scout Troop took tours of the United States. The differences in my country amazed me. From the shores of the Pacific Ocean, through great deserts, the swamps and bayous of the south and eastern shore, the tall pines and great trees of the northeast, the Great Plains, and the Rocky Mountains. We often traveled for several hours without seeing any towns or villages.

So, I found the French countryside far different from the USA. Los Angeles is not particularly a city as the center of a “landopolis” - a place where houses sat wherever one looked. There were never any clear lines between the towns. That was not the case in the countryside I now rode through. One did not go more than 5 or 6 kilometers without entering a small village.

Another note. My moped had a tank that held 1 liter of gasoline. Our gas stamps came in one, five, and ten liter denominations so I almost never used the monthly allocations. [We won't talk about how one bought the full allotment and “traded” them to one's buddies.] Being willing to peddle as much as using the engine often gave me well over 250 kilometers on a tank.

One of the guys in the battalion had a motorscooter and put it up for sale when he was ready to take The Freedom Train home. The price was right and I worked out a deal to make two payments on it.

The Lambretta was a bit different than the motor bike. It had a 5 liter tank with a range of about 100 kilometers per liter – more if one kicked it into neutral going downhill. I bought the 1 liter stamps as I never used up all the tank and didn't want to give away the amount I didn't need on a 5 liter stamp. I may not be right about this but seem to remember the Exchange Service had a deal with ESSO and that was where one had to buy gas. I'm also not certain what companies operated there but seem to remember Shell, British Petroleum and another – but not a French company.

Interior of the Cathedral in Bordeaux

There I was, a young, virile man in a far away country, free to fall into the depths of sin. [That's all you're gonna read about that part of my time there!]

But, one of the things I truly enjoyed was the architecture, the old buildings from historical times. I especially enjoyed visiting churches. The massive cathedrals with their towering ceilings and ornate facades and internal friezes always caught my attention. During my trips, I found a lot of smaller local churches just as beautiful.

I also broke from my Mormon upbringing by attending masses at the various area churches. Something about the Gregorian chants echoing from the vast ceilings calmed me. I even understood some of the Latin and the way the rite was conducted. I discovered little places here and there where one could see remnants of things constructed during the presence of the Romans.

In early summer of 1959, I took a 7 day leave to see the countryside. I had a Rand-McNally map from the Stars and Stripes store and figured I could make my way without getting lost. I had some American Express traveler's checks and French bills and coins.

At a top speed of about 45 mph, I wasn't going to be traveling on the major highways where drivers had no idea speed limits existed. The first leg from Bussac to Bordeaux gave me no choice and I rode the very edge of the highway, hanging on for dear life when a truck or bus roared by, the wind tossing me around.

No, I didn't wear a helmet. They weren't required and I couldn't wear my army helmet. I wore a knit cap with a pair of shop goggles over my eyeglasses. And gloves with my black GI boots.

I reached Bayonne a little after noon and found a boulangerie [bakery], boucher [butcher], and boutique de vins [wine shop] to buy my lunch. A bench in a nice park filled with beautiful flowers almost, but not quite, hid the sight of soot-covered buildings and people wearing drab clothes.

It did not take much longer until I reached the Bay of Biscay and rode down the highway to Biarritz. There was a long stretch of beach but not a big crowd of bathers. I also saw very few bikinis. The one thing that upset me was to see tufts of dark hair showing under arm pits, a furry coat on legs, and similar tufts in places I won't delineate here.

I quickly moved on and, as it was getting late, decided to find a place to spend the night in Saint Jean-de-Luz. The first thing I noticed about the landscape south of Bordeaux was the total lack of signs of destruction from the big war only 13 years earlier. To see bullet holes in walls was common north of Bordeaux although it had been in Vichy France. I found a small inn facing the waterfront, selecting it because it had an interior courtyard where I could park my motor scooter.

The one thing I had learned was to check for the price list posted by the door of every establishment. The prices were clear so, with my English/French dictionary in hand, I went inside. Very quaint. Highly polished wood floor, old pictures and paintings covering the walls, some furniture that appeared to come from the late 1800s and a small bell desk with a woman in her 50s or 60s. Unlike her countrywomen to the north, she smiled and appeared pleased to welcome an American soldier to her establishment. She even tried to speak some words of English to me! [I almost fell over in shock.]

I filled out the required card, showed her my military ID and leave papers [which she had no idea what to do with but understood I didn't need a passport or visa] and paid by converting one of my traveler checks. She even gave me a most reasonable conversion rate that was posted behind her desk. I put my motor scooter in a corner of the courtyard and ensured it was locked, then followed her upstairs to my room. It was small but very clean and the sanitary facilities were more than adequate to include an old fashioned bathtub on legs. Yeah, it had the required bidet. The best thing was the small balcony facing the ocean.

Two doors away was a small restaurant. Again, I checked the clearly posted menu and sat down at a table looking out over the beach. It was not yet the height of summer and not that many people walked or lolled on the beach or in the water. Parents enjoying the day with their children were the majority. A waiter came out and patiently waited while I translated the menu. At least I'd become fluent in the different types of wine and ordered a small bottle of Bordeaux – it was not until a few years later that I learned to savor different types of wine.

I ordered alaitue, tomate, oignon et la salade au fromage, un soupe de poisson, et veau et les pommes de terre la puree et haricots verts. The wine was excellent, the lettuce crisp with an excellent vinegar and oil dressing, and the veal with mashed potatoes and green beans nicely finished the presentation. Actual French cooking worth talking about. There was an assortment of pastry, so I tried something with pears in it and topped off the meal with strong café avec crème et le sucre. Like every eating establishment I entered, a large espresso machine stood behind the bar but I never had a taste for it.

The one thing I liked about eating was that nobody hurried. As long as I had a drink in front of me, I could spend hours. That's just what I did, watching the passing people to include a few young ladies who hid their faces and giggled as they passed the obvious American.

There was a rare television set in the bar area and, when it grew dark, I went in and found a table where I could watch some kind of variety show in black and white. I only stayed long enough to drink a glass of cognac before going upstairs to my room. I left the window wide open to hear the soothing sound of waves – and the honking of horns that appeared mandatory for any French driver. The mattress was firm but the feather comforter and pillow soon led me to the land of slumber.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

A US Military Base in France in the late 50's

Being confined to the camp wasn't as bad as I expected. While not a big place, it had just about everything one needed. Beyond the Post Exchange, something like Sears and Roebucks, there was a bookstore that sold all sorts of stuff and was operated by Stars & Stripes, the American newspaper for soldiers stationed overseas. The other amenities included the expected barber shop, a small snack bar, a theater, bowling alley, and a Special Services club with a complete library, recreation room, pool tables, lots of tables for playing cards and other games.

And, the on-base things were perfect for my meager paycheck.

The hardest part was watching the guys load onto buses Friday and Saturday afternoon for the ride into Bordeaux – those that were given passes, And, when they returned to the barracks after an afternoon and evening of carousing, I had to listen to all their tales of beautiful French women falling all over them and the fantastic food and drink. (Soldier's are about the best liars in the world – second to Swabbies that is)

The next hardest thing was missing out on the local tours provided by the Service Club. Once a week, they provided free bus tours to a variety of places not too far from the camp. I promised myself, that as soon as I was free, I'd take advantage of them. As my Freedom Day came in the middle of the month – and I only had very little cash in my pants – one of the Service Club tours was my first outing away from the camp – and into the French countryside.


To be perfectly honest, after all these years, I really have no idea where the tour went to. I do know that during the next few months, I took one tour to Cognac where we saw the vineyards and a distillery where the “real thing” was brewed. And yes, we got a taste of it.

One of the other tours I remember was to the town of Saint-Émilion. I clearly remember the church carved out of the face of a cliff with the bell tower rising above it. And yes, we had a free wine tasting with Pâté and fresh bread.

And yes – the first Friday after payday, I was on that bus for the long ride into Bordeaux. There was a plaza facing the River Garrone with a large stone arch. I stopped to check out a discolored bronze plaque and saw it dated from some time in 150 or so AD and had been built by the Romans. On a later tour of the city, I learned that many Roman buildings had been rebuilt by the Franks and then were razed by the Moors in 732 AD.

But, with that tiny bit of curiosity taken care of, it was off to partake of the delights of France!

Following the file of clearly American GIs, we went up a cobble-stoned street and everyone turned into one particular side street. Two guys from the platoon had taken me under their wings and we walked directly to one particular bar – to find it filled with more GIs. And, of course, some ladies who worked there. They sure were not Brigitte Bardots! [If you're not old enough, she was a hot babe that every young guy in the world swooned over in the 50's – especially as she loved to wear the risqué new bikini bathing suits.] The Queen of that particular bar was a well-worn Algerian. The one thing I remember about her was her mustache and tendrils of hair peeking out of her armpits. Bienvenue en France !

I'd never been in a bar before in my life so I had no idea what to expect. Thanks to my friends, I managed not to make a total fool of myself. First of all, the girls crawled all over the guys trying to get them to buy a “piccolo” - a small bottle of what was supposed to be champagne that was hugely over-priced. The first thing I learned was a dice game played with a cup and match sticks. Somehow the deal was that the first to lose named to drink to be ordered, the second paid for it and the winner got to drink it. I somehow stayed true to my religious upbringing and spent the night nursing several soft drinks equally over-priced. As a wide variety of people might read this, I will completely skip over my introduction of French bar girls.

I do remember riding the bus back to camp wondering what the big deal about France was all about.

Setting Out to Tour Southern France

I bought a motor-powered bicycle - it had a “clip-on: motor mounted over the front wheel. One pedaled to start and it would almost get up to 25 or 35 mph on flat land. Of course, one disconnected it when going downhill and I often had to get off and push going uphill. 1 liter of gasoline would take me over 100 kilometers “clicks“ as we called them.

The best thing about this was how easy it was to work on. The downside was everything was metric so none of the tools we used in the shop for US equipment. However, the ever-useful screwdriver, pliers, and adjustable wrench solved most of the problems. Oh yeah! Don't forget the patch kit for the tires' inner tubes.

Royan is a village on the Gironde Estuary of the western coast of France near the sea. While the rest of France was old and drab - they seemed to glory in their gray buildings that have not been upgraded since the middle ages - the town was almost completely new. Modern buildings and several nice beaches with barely noticeable waves. The water sort of lapped the shore. I wondered how this unusual town came about and was told a story about typical Gallic ignorance or bravado or whatever.

Seems there were a couple of major Nazi installations nearby. The Allies were sent to bomb it. Using American and British aircraft, Free French aircrews screwed up and bombed the town instead of the German targets they were sent after. Later, other raids took place in which huge loads of napalm were dropped to finish the job.

When the war ended, the French demanded the town be rebuilt due to the errors. The money came from American coffers and the town was rebuilt from the ground up. Even then, in 1958 when I was there, it had already started to transform to the drab Gallic color scheme, covered with coal soot.

As the land was flat, going to Royan on the bicycle was easy, I only had to pedal a few times. Once I got off restriction and had purchased the bike, it was summer time and I heard about the seaside resort. Being from Southern California, I wanted to see what French beaches looked like. Of course, I’d heard about the scandalous ones that were topless and even nude.

There were a number of villages between the camp and Royan. If I left early in the morning, it was the time when the bakeries had just taken their big, long loaves of bread - Baguette - out of the oven, I would stop to buy a half-loaf, then go next door to the butcher shop to buy goose-liver pâté de foie gras. One further stop would result in a nice bottle of red wine. Thank goodness I’d purchased a Swiss Army Knife in the Post Exchange as it had a corkscrew.

With all this in my backpack, I’d pull into Royan to find a nice bench under a shade tree.

The bikini had been around since the late 1940s but was rarely seen in the USA. 1958 was a time when girls wore big, wide pleated skirts with hemlines just below the knees and high necklines. Only gowns showed a hint of cleavage. So, it was really something else for a young American like me to sit overlooking the beach where women lay in the sun wearing such skimpy swimwear. Some topless!

The major problem was that French women, unlike the American counterparts, didn’t shave! One might see a truly attractive female only to have her lift her arm to show a thick mass of hair. Legs, at a distance, were okay but up close left much to be desired, covered with hair.

1958 – My first full year in France

Surprisingly, I quickly settled into my new job as company clerk. Sergeant Kapalino was a good teacher and the guy I replace had everything well-organized. It also helped that every single job had an SOP – Standard Operating Procedure – a step-by-step guide to doing it. That and the ever-present Army Regulation. I was always up and at work before revile and was excused from physical training and the morning formation – that meant I had to do my exercises on my own. Luckily, as in every military installation in the world, there was a gymnasium that included a steam room – one of my favorite places to relax.

Although thousands of miles from home, we knew what was going on “back in the world” due to The Stars and Stripes. The newspaper kept us up to date and the book stand had loads of books and magazines. I'd always been a voracious reader so that and the camp library kept me in reading material. We also had Armed Forced Radio and could easily pick up BBC on my Grundig AM/FM/SW radio. I can't find any pictures of anything similar but this was during the early stages of transistors so it was a very large item. It is also necessary to point out we were on French 220 volt electricity, so every electrical item had to meet that standard.

The big news of 1958 was the induction of Elvis Presley into the US Army. Mister Swivel Hips had to get a GI haircut and go through Basic like the rest of us.

In April, something called The World Fair in Brussels opened. The theme was some strange looking thing

Of somewhat major interest to us was that in June, General De Gaulle was brought out of retirement to lead France - & immediately made noises about Americans based in his country. Later in September, 79% of Frenchmen voted for the 5th Republic. Gaullists won French parliamentary elections – a sure sign of things to come. And then, The General as he was called in every French publication, was elected president. There was no doubt as to his unhappiness over the leading role the United States was playing in European affairs.

President Ike signed the declaration that made Alaska a state.

In sort of a byline that few of us GIs understood, The Quarrymen recorded their first record, That'll be the Day by Buddy Holly and In Spite of All the Danger by two of their members, a McCartney and Harrison.

De Havilland Comet jets started first trans-Atlantic flights for BOAC. Of greater pride to us was that Boeing's 707 was also placed into service in October.

And, how could we miss the news as all of Europe was riveted to that smokestack on top of the Vatican when Pope John XXIII succeeded Pope Pius XII.

On a local slant, the major thing I remember about the area was the rain. Every single day since my arrival, it would begin to cloud up around three o'clock in the afternoon to rain for at least one hour. Every single day. Thank the Lord for our army ponchos. Unlike modern versions, ours were rubberized cloth in a solid Olive Drab. It covered us well and had the standard hood. Mine surely got put to good use.

Being company clerk also had the best perk of all – making me exempt from pulling Kitchen Police. But, I was still required to perform Charge of Quarters basically because it ensured I'd be up early enough to prepare the daily Morning Report. It was during tours as CQ that I think my desire to write blossomed. Up until then, it had been a case of writing notes in a small journal. Now, I had from five in the evening until five in the morning to sit at a typewriter and pound out page after page of ramblings. I don't remember what I wrote about but can honestly say not a word of it was ever meant to be for public consumption. I do seem to remember a couple of very short pieces that were published in the camp newsletter – clearly about military topics. I have no idea how many words moved themselves from my gray matter to paper. I only know that I spent endless evenings sitting at my desk writing – always using paper that had been used and thrown away for other purposes.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Voila! Gay Paree? In the Heart of France

Gare du Nord
[I don't think this is all that different from when
I saw it a little over 50 years ago]

It took forever to go through the seemingly endless rail yards approaching Paris. I remember row after row of gray buildings jammed close together passing the sooty windows of the rail car. Although the rubble had been cleared away, 13 years after the end of WWII, the signs of war were still there.

We pulled into a huge station. We were allowed to briefly disembark but warned to stay in a clearly marked area reserved for US military personnel. There was a Red Cross booth where the Donut Dollies handed out coffee and, yes, donuts. There was even a special restroom for us.

I remember staring out the window once we were under way again. It took forever for us to leave the grayness of the city and, I don't ever think we were in a position to see the Eiffel Tower. The countryside was far more interesting once we got out of Paris. I don't remember seeing all the expected vineyards, just miles after miles of hedgerows delineating boundary lines between farms. We passed through small railroad stations, just as gray and uninteresting as the big city.

I noticed was the lack of beautiful, young women. All the females wore dark, long dresses with coats and drab head coverings.

Looking back now, I'm somewhat certain that we stopped in Orleans to let some troops off. Our next stop was Tours and then Poitiers. The next leg was longer and we ate K-rations on the train for dinner. The only good thing was plenty of ice cold milk and, for those who drank it, hot coffee. It wasn't until late in the evening when we pulled into the huge station in Bordeaux.

Gare de Bordeaux

We were herded by MPs, this time outside into the dark. All I remember seeing was the outlines of buildings with spiky roofs, shuttered windows and cobblestones in the big plaza in front of the station. We loaded onto two American-style school buses in the standard Olive Drab and headed off into the night. We crossed one, then another, large bridge I guessed spanned a big river. Then we drove into the dark night with widely scattered villages.

I think the thing that made Harold and I feel best was to be met by a First Lieutenant and a Sergeant First Class. They were clearly waiting for us and, after handing over the sealed envelopes with our personnel records, we saluted the lieutenant as he left and got into a three-quarters ton truck with the sergeant. He took us to a WWII barracks on the outer edge of a military camp and led us up some outside stairs to the third floor.

Welcome to your new home,” he told us.

Exactly as we'd had at Fort Belvoir and our Basic Training sites. Seemingly the same no matter where our military forces served.

There were two vacant top bunks next to one another and a Specialist Five had us drop our duffel bags and follow him to a room where we signed for our foot and wall lockers as well as; sheets, olive drab, standard military, a blanket, olive drab, standard, military and a pillow, striped, feather, standard military. I don't remember much beyond that but making my bed, putting my stuff in my wall locker, and falling into bed, instantly dropping off to sleep.

I don't think we got very much sleep. The Charge of Quarters came through, turned on the lights and yelled at us to “Hit the floor, then the door!”

Harold and I were part of a small, separate platoon made up of the lieutenant platoon leader, a warrant officer shop officer, the platoon sergeant and two specialist fives who only acted as squad leaders – we weren't organized like combat units. Every one of them had Southern accents as thick as anything I'd ever heard before.

Everyone seemed quite happy to see us and went out of their way to welcome us and show us around. The mess hall was operated by the engineer construction battalion we were assigned to support and I quickly noticed our little group separated themselves from the others. We might have been in the land of “alimentaires magnifiques", but the mess hall food tasted exact like Army food everywhere else.

After breakfast, we joined all the other members of the platoon as they walked – not marched – from the battalion area to a gate allowing us to leave the confines of the base to cross a highway to another fenced-in area where a huge variety of large construction machines were parked. There was a very large building with bays where equipment was being worked on. Another bay lay at the very far end of the building and that was our destination. A big sign over the door said, 1st Platoon, 581st Engineer Company (Field Maintenance). Our Orderly Room was actually a small office in the back corner of the bay and that's where Harold and I reported in to the lieutenant.

It didn't take long until Harold was led off to have his work clothing issued. I had to stay behind to have a “small discussion” with the lieutenant and sergeant. They were not exactly pleased with the Record of Summary Courts Martial contained in my sealed personnel jacket. Both listened as I gave my side of the story. I only remember the lieutenant saying something about anything like that in his platoon and I would find myself in the stockade [confinement facility or military jail].

Not exactly an auspicious start to my stay in Southern France.

Landes de Bussac, France

Our company headquarters was located in Chinon, a hundred or so miles north of us.

Camp Bussac had been a Luftwaffe airfield during WWII. 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 restricted to base 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 for the Allies 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 beer was fantastic and I got hooked on the Kielbasa on fresh-baked rolls. Especially with spicy Polish mustard and sauerkraut.


Harold and I found ourselves somewhat outsiders. We were both from California while every other member of the platoon, from the Lieutenant to the lowest Private First Class were from somewhere in Dixie. They never let us forget that with the Confederate flag everywhere. 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 mess hall tables and everything else as equals. And, unlike some places I experienced many years later, the blacks didn't separate themselves from the whites.

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, a Caterpillar D9, 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 assigned. 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. 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, 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 family 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 for 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.

Army script
(I remember how weird it was to have bills instead of coins.)

Payday was probably the most looked-forward 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, all businesses around the base or in town where we congregated accepted script.

The lieutenant arrived wearing a sidearm with the sergeant, also armed. We wore 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, the woman I had grown up believing was my grandmother.. 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 guys 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 performing Charge of Quarters, but I didn’t have to spend hours on cleaning details.