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Chapter 3

Suddenly one day in May 1943, we readied for a secret mission. Dressed in our best and with most of our equipment, we started a very interesting trip to West Virginia through Ohio. The Army trucks raced through all the towns at breakneck speed until we came to Chillicothe, Ohio. There we spent the first night on the lawn of the Government Reformatory. We pitched tents in neat rows amid a lot of confusion. We spent our second day at Parkersburg. The third night we camped near a railroad somewhere in Virginia. We found out that our mission was to guard the railroad over which President Roosevelt and Churchill were to travel.

We were spread over the track and ordered to keep off anyone who would come near it. Our rifles were loaded with ammo, and it was all very serious. We paced back and forth in a military manner. The special went by so fast that it was only in sight for a couple of seconds. All that effort for that! We took the bayonets off of our rifles and went back to our tents to get some sleep. Early in the morning with much effort we rolled up the equipment, policed the area, and were on our way back to camp. The scenery was beautiful. There were so many steep mountains to go over.

We received a wonderful reception from the people on the way back. As the convoy roared through town, they would wave and throw fruit and candy into the trucks. We enjoyed this change from the routine training even though those over us were very strict and watched every move that we made.

We no sooner got back to camp [than] we had to go out on a two week bivouac. There were thirteen straight days of rain in which we slopped around in six inches of mud. Sometimes we had to walk in water up to our armpits. Everything got even wetter and I was scared for fear that I might slip and drown in one of the holes of the river. Not being able to swim was my great fear. To eat, sleep, and train in the rain and mud was all that we could bear. Our C.O., who was still Capt. Bauknight, gave us a very rough time. We had to jump at his word.

In June 1943, [I] had another visit from the folks. We only had 24 hours together as I had to be back. I had only six hours sleep in three days. We enjoyed talking and walking together and I was glad that they were able to come. I believe they went to Florida from here.

[Then] we started another week of problems. They woke us up at 3 and we had breakfast at 0330. They gave us two sandwiches for lunch and supper at 1030 at night. We were hungry and thirsty, and we suffered. The bugs were fierce. I counted 120 mosquito bites on my arms and 50 on my body. I figured that I was immune to any further poisoning.

Now the time came to leave Atterbury, and I couldn't help but think at the difference in us and the camp since we came there. It had been nothing but a mud hole. Now there were paved sidewalks and some lawns. It had been cold, raw, and muddy most of the time, and now it was nice. It had been our home for months, and we couldn't help regret leaving. Most of the fellows said that they were glad to leave. Many of those wished later that they could be back.

We started with sixty men in each barracks, but by the time they let the over-40-[year-old] men go and the illiterate, we were down to about half. There must have been a thousand of these who despite all the schooling and training that the Army tried to give them never became responsible soldiers. Many of them had personal problems and would take off for home at any sign of unfaithfulness from girlfriends or wives. We all had to read the mail to these men and write an answer. Some had difficulty in wearing shoes and a necktie. They were strong and active and might have been good in the field if they had been given a chance. As replacements, we received men from the Texas Indian Head 2nd. Division.

Because Gen. (Yoo Hoo) Lear was to review us, we had to learn the words of the song which was popular at the time, "This is the Army, Mr. Jones," because he liked it. So we sang it as we marched and hated every word of it because when we returned to camp in the afternoon we could barely keep instep, let alone sing. The day came for the review, and he didn't show. We didn't have to sing, for which we were glad, but [we were] resentful for having [had] to learn the thing. It seemed that one day General Lear was playing golf as a column of G.I.'s marched by and they went "Yoo Hoo" at some of the girls playing on the course. As punishment, he made these men march 25 miles the next day with field packs. That is where he got the name.

Some men that I remember from basic training were Sergeant Nutski, the platoon leader; Sergeant Stanek, the squad leader; Private Hojara, and especially George Petchico from Fall River, Mass. He did all in his power to get out of the service. He was 5’2," 180 lb., and a ball of fat. He was sick, he cried and stormed because he hated the Army, the food, the training and his Uncle—who being on the draft board couldn't have him deferred. He took a fancy to me, and I was unable to turn around without him tagging along. I tried to pacify the anger that he had for his uncle and to encourage him to accept his lot which he finally did. He finally took an interest in the training, lost a lot of weight, and then did a good job as a soldier. He even got used to the mildly seasoned food and told me later that he was getting to like it better than his mother's cooking.

After a short ride we arrived in the hot, dry state of Tennessee [to take part in maneuvers]. Trucks picked us up at the station, and we were taken deep into the woods. There we pitched tents and tried to make ourselves comfortable. The only water available was from a Lister bag and this we had to practically steal to get enough to drink. The first week we did little more than hike and exercise.

The first taste that we had of the heat was when we assembled in a large open area to be welcomed by the General. We sat in the blazing sun to listen to his welcome and to instructions for our conduct in the maneuver area. After about two hours we started back for camp, and that was when our ordeal began. About 25% of the men fell out on the way back. Between the heat and lack of water, the men just couldn't take it. I just barely made it to my area. One thing in favor of camping out was that we had no barracks to clean. Of course, we did police the area day and night to pick up anything that didn't grow.

I saw my first accident one day as we were marching down a road. A horse that had been grazing suddenly became frightened at seeing us marching by, and it panicked and headed straight for us. Our training of staying in marching order kept us from opening up a path for the running horse and it tried to jump over the column. One of its hooves kicked into a man's helmet and knocked him down. That was a good lesson to prove the value of the steel helmet even though it weighted about 3 lbs. I was always afraid of the wild horses and mules during the times when we had to cross fields near them. I don't believe that I ever saw a dog or cat in Tennessee.

About once a week, PX rations came and we thought it was wonderful to be able to buy something special. We had money but no way to spend it as we were so deep in the woods. I was now a messenger for Headquarters.

One hot day they took us out for a 25 mile hike. We started about noon and kept going until 9 at night. It was a blistering hot day and our canteen of water that was supposed to last all day was soon empty. We were allowed to pour water over our heads as we crossed streams but were forbidden to drink. Most of us dipped our helmets into the stream, poured the water over our heads and down our throat. We didn't care that it was dirty. After a few hours, the men began to sway and stagger and fall by the side of the road. Before it was over, about 25% of the strong, young men were lying unconscious and delirious in the ditches. Some were so bad that they had to be hospitalized.

I was one of those that made the hike and was completely exhausted. I don't believe that I had been so tired before. They brought water and food at night to appease our hunger and thirst. Finally things got back to normal. The men were in such a bad way that they didn't care about anything. It was the closest that we had ever come to mutiny. There was no discipline that night.

In July, 1943, a tank battalion joined us, and we began problems together. The size of these tanks terrified us. It looked as if nothing could stop these iron monsters. They drove them through fences and fields of corn just as if it had been grass. I had my first ride inside a tank destroyer. It was thrilling and novel.

Maneuvers were fun most of the time, but the hike from one area to another in the blazing sun was not. We learned how to get water from streams and farmhouses and risked punishment. They were trying to train us for desert warfare and wanted us to live on one canteen of water per day. This was impossible and so when a man is thirsty, he will do most anything to get some. I even drank water out of ruts. At this point, I thought that the most wonderful thing would be to see water run out of a spigot. I saw more wells in Tennessee than I knew existed. Some of the bucket type but most were the kind that you lower a cylinder into a small hole and draw up the water that way. As it was,these poor people didn't have enough for their own use and it was a sacrifice for them to give it to us. Every home had its own rain barrel for washing of clothes. There was also many kinds of water, some good and some bad. The worse smelling being sulfur water, once you got it past your nose it was alright. We made several river crossings which were exciting and dangerous.

[I] enjoyed my first visit to Nashville, especially the shower at the YMCA. Nashville is sort of hilly, but I liked it fine. I never saw so many GI's as in town. We took a cab back to camp and then our problem for the next hour was trying to find our tents in the darkness of the woods. [I] attended my first field church service.

One week of a problem, I spent on K.P. It was rough cooking out in the field but the hardest part was loading the trucks each day and getting set up in a new location. There was little sleeping in tents from now on except at a problem’s end. We just lay down where we were without anything off. We had to be careful where we lay because tanks would move around at night, and some fellows were run over. Often we would awaken and find a cow looking us over. [I] got a good case of jiggers and mosquito bites. Watermelon and ice cream were my favorite treat as we were dried out from the lack of water.

In [I] had my first brush with death as lightning struck near me as I climbed over a wire fence and the shock went through me. I felt that God was with me in keeping me from being hurt.

[I] was on guard duty for one week protecting a bridge across a river. It was a snap except we ran out of C-rations and some of the fellows had to go out to see what they could buy. In addition the people gave us biscuits and eggs. The southerners were nice to us even though we cut down their fences and drank the water which was so scarce at this time of the year. We were entertained in the woods one day by a Nashville hillbilly group. This music seemed wild to us Northerners.

Our platoon sergeant now was Sergeant Norski. He treated us very well as his object was to borrow money from everyone, which he never returned. He got me for a few dollars also, which I wrote off as a donation.

After many weeks of problems were over, we were taken by truck to Springfield, Tennessee. We bivouacked in this area for 2 weeks. We lived in two-man tents and had it pretty good. It seemed as if they were trying to fatten us up before we were to go on furlough. I shared my tent with Sergeant Stanek. We got along very well together. He also kept me off many details. He would have nightmares sometimes and the tent would collapse as he would try to make a new exit. One night I saw him ready to do this again and I said to him in a loud voice, "This way out!" and he went out the right way and saved the tent.

[Although] most of the days on maneuvers had been dry, [by September 1943], we began to have heavy rains. It was a struggle to keep ourselves and the equipment dry. [I] visited Nashville for the last time and saw my first field movie.

The dreaded maneuvers were over and they hadn't been too bad. We enjoyed being out in the field and didn't look forward to routine training and barracks life again. We had been away from close order drill and parades, too.

There were humorous incidents that happened during some of these problems. One night, after a very hard day, we stopped along the road to rest for awhile and the whole company fell asleep. We were supposed to be on the alert. The next thing we knew an enemy machine gun was facing us and we were all captured. The C.O. was very unhappy on account of our failure to stay awake. But we did get about two days rest out of our capture. Another time during a heavy battle, I was separated from my unit behind enemy lines. I met a couple other fellows and we spent several days wandering around trying to find our unit. We received one free meal from some people and paid for one. Finally we were captured by the enemy. They fed us and let us go the next day. There were some goldbricks who got lost on purpose to avoid the hard training.

During one problem, in which we had to take a bridge, feelings ran so hard that the men fixed bayonets, and only the quick intervention of the umpires prevented bloodshed. It proved that the Army did a good job in making these maneuvers seem like the real thing. It seemed that the men were unhappy over the decision of the umpires after the men had been struggling over this bridge problem for three days.

The river problem was interesting but dangerous. We made a midnight crossing in rubber boats. Getting into and out of these was difficult because of the muddy banks. After we got across, the engineers hastily constructed a foot bridge over which we had to run at double time. Again we crossed the river at another point. Some of us were successful, and some were driven back. Some were separated from the company and some built makeshift rafts to try to get back. They had bad luck as the rafts with all their clothes and weapons turned over and they lost all. Some of the other men had to share their clothes with them.

Then after a couple of weeks rest at Springfield, we began the march to Breckenridge, Kentucky. They would drive us part of the way each day and let us march about 15 miles each day. It was hard on the feet but a lot of fun, too. As we marched through the towns, people lined the streets and cheered us as if we had been heroes. It was very hot and some of the people handed us pieces of ice to quench our thirst. Late in the afternoon we camped, ate, stood retreat, and we were free.

Suddenly, Italy surrendered. Now we thought the allies would be at the Brenner Pass, and the war would soon be over. We felt very good.

Military discipline started as soon as we neared the [Camp Breckenridge, Kentucky]. We reached camp tired, dirty and ready for a good rest. The first day about all we had in the way of work were details.

They now started sending men on furloughs. My turn came from September 18, 1943 to October 2. A few of us took a cab to Evansville, Indiana to the railroad station. From there I left for Philadelphia. I was very happy to be on my way home even though I had no plans. But I did need the rest and change. I had wired my folks who were in Florida at the time that I was coming home. They didn't receive it as they were already on their way home. Everything looked so strange to me when I got to Philadelphia early in the morning. I let myself in and laid down on the couch while waiting for them to rise. Dad came into the parlor and was very surprised to find me there.

After a few days, I decided that I had better call Evelyn at the office (Camden Fire Insurance). We made a date for dinner in town at Wanamaker's Crystal Tea Room. Afterwards we looked at some exhibits nearby and then not understanding Evelyn, I insisted that we go see a movie. This was a total failure because she hadn't wanted to go in the first place and didn't enjoy it, and I was unhappy because I could see that she only went to please me. We didn't stay in there very long. The next day we boarded a bus for Atlantic City. The bus was rough, old and slow. But we enjoyed being together, and we had a good day there. The next week we had another date to see a stage show called "Life with Father." This we enjoyed although Evelyn didn't care for some of the profanity in it. We were falling in love more and more and to me it seemed that Evelyn was fighting hard against doing so. After the play, we took a bus to Westmont to take her home. She waited with me while my bus came and that is where I first kissed her as we could see the bus getting nearer. That kiss seemed to do it, as we were never the same after that. I treasured that first kiss and well remember how she looked up at me with her pretty blue eyes.

The furlough being over, Bill Costello, the man who had bought my store, insisted on driving me to the railroad station. I choked up some as I was unhappy over parting from my loved ones again. Grandma Hantwerker cried a little too.

[I] arrived at Terre Haute, Indiana and had to wait a couple of hours for another train. [I] arrived at Evansville during the night and went over to the Red Cross canteen. There they served coffee and doughnuts. I tried to lay on a bench to get some sleep but the bench was hard and it was very cold in the morning. "San Antone Rose" made an impression on me as I heard it being sung by a GI with a guitar.

[I] worked on the rifle range, lowering and raising the targets to let the marksman know what he had hit and to replace the paper. When my turn came to fire on the targets, my rifle slipped and I got a black eye. We were sent out in the field for a week of problems, and from there I received a field pass for Evansville. I slept in a building next to the Episcopal Church. The young people treated us as well as they could with refreshments and records. There was some dancing, for [the] most part we were just glad to have a comfortable place to stay away from camp. I predicted [that the] war would be over by October 27, 1943.

They taught us to dig and use spider holes. It was surprising how well a person can hide themselves in one of them and not be seen. We spent one whole day doing his. While in the hole, a letter and picture came from Evelyn. I enjoyed both and loved her even more. From this time on, I started to open my heart to her more and used more endearing terms. In November 1943, I unofficially started to learn to cook and had a job in the kitchen that I liked. I went to cooking school a couple of times.

In the camp there was a compound for prisoners who had to serve time for many reasons but mostly for being A.W.O.L. They lived outdoors in small tents all year round, and their lot was a hard one due to the severe discipline and weather. It was my lot one day to take one of these fellows out to police the area. I was given live ammunition and threatened with punishment if I should let this fellow escape. I felt so sorry for this fellow as I followed him around with my loaded rifle. We were forbidden to talk with these men or to allow them any privileges. We spent so many hours outside and so many inside during this tour of guard duty. The whole division was taken out away from the camp and a demonstration for plane identification was held. It was interesting, but I could never tell one from another. [I] sent Evelyn a box of candy and a chain for her neck as a souvenir.

[I] became [a] full time assistant cook now and was immune from details. It was wonderful to be free and not to have to hide. We cooks did have to go through the infiltration course one evening. The way the tracers bounced was awesome. We bivouacked for weeks at a time now, and the cooks and I bunked in double tents. We had to get up at three to get the food ready for the men's breakfast. Then we were able to go back to the tent for a few more hours of sleep. It was bitter cold now and my hands got very stiff working with the water and food.

How I hated the V. D. pictures. I usually kept my eyes closed to avoid seeing the results of this sin. As terrible as they were, they seemed to make no impression on the actions of most men.

Rumors started that all furloughs would be canceled, that we were leaving for California and that I was to lose my cooking job.

The USO in Evansville gave me some very happy hours away from camp. [I saw] Cassello in Evansville one time. At camp I always filled my spare time at the P.X., [the] movies, and [the] service club.

I helped prepare Thanksgiving dinner. It was like a party, and the cooks received compliments for a job well done. I had never seen so much on the table. Because a cook's helper had to be a P.F.C., they had to give me the rating. I was pleased for it and the four extra dollars a month.

In December 1943, I had to qualify with the Browning automatic rifle, but I didn't do very well with it. I made a good score with a Garand rifle and qualified as a marksman. We saw a demonstration of mines, booby traps, explosives, flame throwers, and other explosives.

The boys had a party in the mess hall. It was a sloppy affair, lots of food and beer. There was hardly anyone sober. It was disgusting the way they got sick.

[I] went Christmas shopping in Evansville and had to pay someone to mail it for me from the field.

[I] told Evelyn about how I had made a fool out of myself asking Wanda K. to marry me. I thought that it was a personal secret but found that everyone knew. Then I had the gall to tell Evelyn that she was also in love with me and that made her very angry at me. This platonic friendship had progressed too far to suit her. She had never considered me as being the right one for her.

I suddenly received a furlough (seven days and two days travel time). I surprised the folks and then came over by bus to see Evelyn. They were not home so I waited around until they [came]. They also were very surprised to see me. I made several visits, and we became affectionate. The night before I had to go back to camp we were together until 3 A.M., and it was almost dawn before I was able to get back to my home in Frankford. The Christmas package that I had sent from camp arrived during this time, and I had the pleasure of seeing her open it. Telling her that she was in love with me had made her lose some sleep, but now she agreed with me [that] there was a mutual love between us; and she was happy and lovely.

One of the big things that troubled Evelyn was the question of whether I had been "saved." This word I didn't understand at all, and I recited to her all of the work that I had been involved in at church: my faithful attendance, choir, teaching a class, being a member of the church council, etc. It was quite awhile before I understood this term "salvation."

I was filled with deep emotion this third and, what I thought, would be my last time. I left more behind this time: the girl that I loved and my parents who weren't too well. Dad was suffering from a severe thyroid condition. (It hadn't been diagnosed as such yet.) We were all sorry that I could not stay for the Christmas holidays, and [I] received my Christmas packages after I got back to camp.

[My brother Mike and his wife Eunice] came home after I had left for camp, and Dean was born December 19, 1943. Eunice and Mike had to make a hurried and dangerous trip over icy roads to get home in time for the blessed event. After a few days, Mike had to rush back to Indiantown Gap.

At camp, the combat obstacle course caused me much misery. There was a trench about eight feet across that we had to jump over. I just couldn't get the nerve to do so. I would run up to the edge and stop short almost falling in. After much coaxing and threatening, I did make it. When I tried another day, I jumped short and bruised my leg badly. From this time on I even refused to try. Bob Miller never even made it once. With tears in his eyes and much effort, he failed. To make him feel even worse, the other men ridiculed him. He was extremely happy when we left this camp. It was here on this course that I lost my wristwatch while crawling under some barbed wire obstacles.

[I] made no New Year's resolutions in January 1944. [I] found myself eligible for a three day pass. After much thought as to whether I should try to go home; I decided to try to visit Mike since he was about ready to ship overseas, and we might not see each other again. The pass was only good within the radius of fifty miles but I wanted to see him so badly that I was willing to chance it. Lost a lot of time waiting for trains; but finally I was on my way to Camp Crowder, Missouri. The M.P. looked at my pass and at me and said nothing.

It was snowing early in the morning as I got into Neosho. I had no idea how to get to see Mike so I called the camp, and he came out to meet me at the gate. There were tears in our eyes as we met as we hadn't seen each other in a long while. He being an officer and I a private was a handicap. But he introduced me to his friends, got me something to eat at the mess hall, and then took me out to see his trailer where he lived on the outskirts of town. I was so very proud of my officer brother. Mike had tears in his eyes as the train pulled away from camp with me on it. There was a long wait between trains in St. Louis and so I saw some of it.

All of us extra cooks had to run a problem, and I do mean run. I was relieved of my duties as a cook and was sent back to join the squad again. [I] started writing poems to Evelyn. [I] went to lots of movies as I had more time, and I visited Owensboro, Kentucky and saw the muddy Ohio River. We had a big parade in honor of some big General. We were now given a lot of judo and bayonet practice, and I hated both.

In February, 1944, [we] had a buffet supper and were entertained by the U.S.O. We practiced digging invisible foxholes so cleverly made that a man could stand on them and not be aware of them. It was fun scaring the daylights out of the men. [I] was concerned about Dad's condition as he was getting thinner all the time. My lieutenant brought me a Good Conduct Medal, which was a surprise to me.

On February 14,1944, I was on a R.S.O. detail delivering bread to the kitchens and would have to jump on and off the truck each time. It had been a freezing cold day and some how the catch on the chain stayed open and when I tried to swing back onto the tailgate, I was thrown heavily on the hard ground. At first I wasn't sure whether it was a sprain or break, but my wrist turned all colors, and so I was taken to the hospital. An X-ray was taken and I lay down on a table and [was] given a needle and told to count; the next thing I knew I was in a bed with a cast on my wrist, and I was uncomfortable. I was in a ward with about fifty men with assorted breaks of limbs. There was a lot of laughing and talking going on all the time and there was never a dull time. It was fun to have the nurse wake someone to get them to take a sleeping pill.

I was sure my accident was an act of God to keep me from leaving the country with the 83rd. At this time the division was in the process of leaving. The cast was uncomfortable for about a week; otherwise my stay in the hospital was wonderful: good food and beds and entertainment every day of some sort. Outside my buddies were still training in near zero, and it was warm in the ward. My ward companions were friendly. I met an Army nurse whom we nicknamed "Gremlin Wildcat."

My letters from the hospital to Evelyn were pure love letters, and she sent me a beautiful framed picture of herself which I loved. She also sent me a book of poems by Edgar Guest. I made the embarrassing error of mixing the letters that I was sending to Evelyn and the folks. Now they knew how we felt about each other. Evelyn wasn't accepting dates from anyone else now.

In March, they took off my cast and X-rayed my wrist. I had to start moving it and exercising it to bring it back to normal. During an artillery problem an error was made and they zeroed in on the men who were running a problem. The first we knew of this was when our ward was filled with wounded in serious condition. All night there was the groaning and crying of the men in pain. The tragedy left four dead and 20 wounded. The hospital was a madhouse with nurses, doctors, and high-ranking officers running around.

My Lieutenant Stanket and Sergeant Petchico and Hojara visited me. Petchico cried and felt that the outfit was going to leave without me and that he expected to get killed overseas. I found out later that he was killed in action.

© John A. Matzko

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