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.
(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.