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The Human Experience in World War II
by Mansel W. Johns (353R/353B D/A)
CAMPS AND TRAILS OF ONE MEMBER OF THE 353RD ENGINEERS WHO WAS FROM A SMALL DAIRY FARM LOCATED IN THE UNGLACIATED AREA OF THE MOST SOUTHWESTERN SECTION OF WISCONSIN WHERE THE FARMS HAD NO ELECTRICITY OR RUNNING WATER UNTIL AFTER THE WAR.
On October 29, 1942, I enlisted in the Army Air Force while I was in college at Platteville, WI. My hope was to become an airplane mechanic. Shortly after my enlistment, I was inducted at Fort Sheridan, IL. The first few days were a hodge-podge of getting clothing, listening to non-coms speaking loudly and fast. They were telling things as though they had just come off the front lines last night. We watched instructional movies. Some of them scared us so much that we swore that we would never have anything to do with the opposite sex the rest of our lives. Now Iím glad that wasnít true. This unorganized hassle ended when we were bunched up and headed for a train with our wool clothing on and clumsy G.I. shoes that werenít high enough to keep the eight inches of snow out. Even though I had never been close to a train before, I immediately classified it as ancient, less than clean and poorly heated. Air came in around the windows carrying the soot belching from the coal-burning engine whenever the engineer worked the drafts to rid the firebox of the burned ashes, clinkers and soot. Occasionally this residue had to be brushed off our clothing but mostly in the morning after we had taken a few snoozes during the night. We learned to catch a wink of sleep during the day even though there was no way to lay down. All we had in the limited quarters was a very poorly padded seat. An old rumbling boxcar farther back on the train served as the mess hall to which we were herded to and from twice each day. This seemed sufficient as all we did was look out the window and wonder where in the hell we were going because they told us this was all classified (secret). We did know that we were headed south because of the names of the many towns we passed through. That is, when we werenít sitting in a depot or back tracking for regular scheduled trains that were to be on schedule. Many times we sat for two or three hours, which tested our patience and made sight seeing rather boring. We knew there was nothing we could do about it except complain a little. This group of Northerners, young, untrained, slightly scared strangers were pleased to know they were going south, a place they had heard about but had never seen.
We were reminded each day that it was getting warmer because the coach was getting a little more comfortable. We were overdressed with the too warm winter wool clothing that caused us to scratch the itch caused by the wool in warmer weather. Except for the scenery in the mountainous and hilly areas of Kentucky and Tennessee, the biggest thrills were seeing the beautiful oranges hanging from trees in peoples back yards and the leaves on the palm trees being blown by the gentle winds. They seemed to flow in unison causing a friendly welcome gesture. These I had never seen before nor had I ever dreamed that I would see them during my lifetime.
Finally the train stopped and we were told this is Miami Beach and that we were to get off. I am sure we all were glad there would be a change from the four days on the train with no change of those sweaty warm wool clothes, no shower or bath. This didnít bother me as much as it did many of the guys that lived in the city where they led the squeaky clean life. My home had no electricity or running water or indoor toilet. I was also one of the peach faces that did not have to shave.
After being bussed through busy and strange sections of the city, the bus finally stopped on a street with a sandy beach on one side and a big hotel on the other called Milborn Hotel. It was unbelievably beautiful and spotlessly clean. Along with two others, I was assigned a room on the third floor where we took that long waited for and badly needed shower. We were issued clothing (fatigues) that fit the needs of the tropical weather. We no more than got cleaned up when the alarm sounded to fall out in the street below. This was the beginning of the irritating, aggravating alarm that was sounded any time of the day or night demanding us to run down the stairs as fast as we could which was never fast enough. We then had to go back up and come down again. This happened three or four times in succession. Each time the rough looking, raspy voiced corporal would chew us out because we were never able to do anything correctly no matter whether it was close order drill, gas mask instructions, rifle range, crawling under a live fire obstacle course or any other of the many miserable duties we had to perform. No matter how hard we tried, we were never able to do it correctly or fast enough which led to our wishing that we had never gotten into the service.
There were some good parts to this time in the service such as very good food and plenty of it. After getting acquainted, most of the guys were fine fellows. We could purchase a cup of freshly squeezed orange juice from street vendors for five cents. A couple Sunday afternoons each month we were permitted to go to the beach and swim in the salt water.
My first K.P. was pulled in the basement of one of the large hotels where we ate. The unforgettable part was the delicious and inviting looking square pans each holding over a bushel of cheese and macaroni. Six were left over after the meal was served and we were told to put them in garbage cans and throw them out. Having lived a conservative life I found it very difficult to do; therefore, I wondered if they could be saved and warmed over or if they could be given to some poor people. I hesitated only for a very short time before the Mess Sergeant opened up screaming in my face, yelling that he was going to court martial me for disobeying orders. I marked this as my first and last lesson in questioning a higher ranking non-com.
Basic training finally ended and we had to bid many good acquaintances a goodbye. Before leaving, we were interviewed at which time I asked if it would be possible for me to become an airplane mechanic. I was informed that the only two positions open in the mechanics line were in Ordnance as a gun mechanic and automobile mechanics. I chose automobile mechanics.
Some of us boarded a train similar to the one I came down on but this ride as well as others that followed did not impress me as much as that first one did. Again we knew nothing about where we were going except we knew we headed west because of the sun. The trip wasnít bad until we got to Texas where we saw miles of nothing then more miles of nothing.
The heat in the desert was so intense one had difficulty in believing that it could be this hot on earth but sure as hell it was. Breathing was difficult, as even a deep breath of air didnít seem to do any good. Anyway we all survived this ordeal and ended up in Stockton, California where some of us attended the automotive school. We studied repairs and maintenance of the big GMC trucks, weapons carriers, personnel carriers and jeeps. Classroom and hands on instruction consisted of brakes, motors, cooling, electrical system, steering, transmissions, differentials and a few incidentals. The daily classes of ten hours, six days a week for three months completed the course. Everyone was happy that during our studies we were treated more like human beings with no K.P. or guard duty.
Sunday passes were issued twice a month. The temperature in the desert while quite hot in the daytime became much colder during the nights. After graduating, it was again time to say goodbye to some very fine friends and move on.
A staging area at Stanford University was my next stop for a few days from which I was sent to Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois. There we studied weather, geography and math for six weeks. After that I was shipped to Aberdeen, Maryland to the Ordnance Depot where we did extensive exercising and forced marches with the full gear that we would need in Europe. Weather was cold but it seemed we needed to work up a sweat in the cold weather to get in shape.
Next I was shipped to Camp Reynolds in Greenville, Pennsylvania. That trip took three days and three nights! I was exceptionally tired and I slept the entire trip, day and night. When we reached Camp Reynolds, I reported for sick call the first morning. At sick call, while waiting for the medic, I went to sleep again. He finally took my temperature then told me to go back and get my toilet articles. I told him I didnít think I could make it. He got a jeep to haul me back. I was hospitalized with pneumonia for thirty days at which time I was discharged but, the morning I was to leave, the nurse discovered I had a fever. At this point she became very aggressive asking if I had rubbed G.I. soap on myself. I said, ďNoĒ, but she immediately started running her hands around under my arms and between my legs. All this didnít give me any promising thoughts because I knew she was mad. She said, ďYou get back in bed. Iím going to fatten you up or else. YOU make yourself an eggnog twice a day and make one for the fellows I have listed hereĒ. After the second thirty-day stay, I was given a twenty-one day sick leave. I reported back to Camp Reynolds and then sent toward the Pacific instead of Europe.
I was to embark from Fort McDowell, California where all my belongings were replaced by new stuff except I was allowed to keep my bill fold and a small three-bladed pocket knife with white ivory (plastic) handles that a distant relative gave me when I graduated from high school. I have always treasured it and still do because it is the only memorabilia that I carried through all my service time in the states as well as the seven islands in the Pacific. It is now retired except I do call on it at times when I am doing some detailing on my woodcarving. I often look at it and imagine some of the things those little out of shape blades have gone through for me and during the times I had lent it to my friends to use. My love for it may have inspired me to enjoy pocketknives because I now have over thirty-five in my collection. Some I purchased but many were given to me by friends who knew I enjoy pocketknives. Those knives may have helped guide me into my wood-carving hobby. It seems strange how a person ends up treasuring little things in life after experiencing so many bigger and more important things.
After being shipped to San Francisco which was a staging area, my thoughts and fantasies formed what a troop ship would be like because dirt farmers from the Midwest had never been exposed to ocean going vessels. This seemed easy because of my experience to the well planned, clean roomy barracks and mess halls. In my mind I just knew the ship would be similar so that part of the problem, had been taken care of. As it turned out the ship was so far from what I expected, I swore I would never fantasize again.
During the four days there we were hurried then waited in line for medical checks, records, duffel bags, clothing, shoes, orders and instructions on packing plus many other obligations which didnít seem necessary. Finally we headed for the ship and to the too narrow gangplank to accommodate a person and the big, heavy, bulky, clumsy duffel bag. Everyone tried their best to get aboard fast as a raspy voiced non-com screamed, yelled and barked at us to hurry and rush aboard. I never could understand why orders had to be given like that when a slight suggestion would suffice.
Once aboard the ship a strange feeling came over me. I never dreamed a ship could be so expansive and all made of metal. The many strange openings that went down below deck seemed mysterious. We were herded to one of the down below openings where the air seemed to be bellowing out with a less than inviting strange odor. But the narrow steel stairs took my mind off the odor as we descended 3 flights of stairs into the crowded quarters where we were told to pick a bunk. Assuming one was to choose the best one for himself, we looked around, but they all were identical. 16Ē apart and seven high. Each one was a strip of canvas laced with 3/8Ē hemp rope around pipes on 4 sides.
Getting oneís duffel bag into this 16Ē slot wasnít easy even on the lower bunks but the 6th & 7th ones needed help. The high ceilings were the result of this older cargo ship being converted to a troop ship. Cargo had been transported below deck instead of on deck as it is today. Getting in and out of the bunks or shelves was a new experience for us especially when the abandoned ship signal was sounded every couple hours for the first two days and we were never able to get up on deck soon enough with our dirty Mae West life jackets on. We were required to wear the life jackets 24 hours a day for the entire trip.
After a few days no one slept in the hole as it was stuffy and hot. We spent day and night on deck doing nothing as we had no reading material, newspapers or radio. The scenery was water and more water. It changed at times to glass smooth which was beautiful at night in the moonlight. Waves varied from moderate to violently rough at times that looked like they could engulf the ship. Occasionally we passed small islands in the distance. Whales were spotted a few times. A school of porpoises swam along surfacing and entertaining us. Flying fish fascinated us by coming out of the water and flying thru the air for some distance. There seemed to be more flying fish than any other life at sea.
There were more people sick the first couple of days than healthy members aboard. At times one would get so sick they would wish they could die then when you got sicker you are too sick to wish. When sick some of us found comfort on the canvas trays, shelves or bunks. I remember one fellow in one of the upper bunks sick and making strange noises so a fellow in a lower bunk put his head out and looked up in time to catch the top fellows vomit in his face. All were too sick and weak to do anything about it. The Merchant Marine that manned the ship had their sea legs and found us rather humorous as sick guys.
The mess hall that we attended twice a day was crowded and improperly ventilated. The food was made in large quantities which we did eat as we stood at a high table. Eating with one hand as we kept the tray from sliding around with the other as the ship rocked and rolled. The mess hall, bunk area and deck were not up to the clean standards set by the service. Smoke from the diesel-powered motors seemed to settle on things and filter into every compartment of the ship.
After two or three days out, most of us were over our seasickness and the weather was warm day and night. We spent all our time on deck even when it rained because our clothes were dirty and we dried off soon after the rain stopped. Sleeping on the metal deck wasnít the most comfortable but it wasnít stuffy and hot like it was down in the hole.
The crew lent us a few small ropes which we threaded through the arms and legs of our fatigues and then put them overboard in back to slush and thrash through the water and wash some of the dirt & sweat out. That helped but salt stayed in the fabric.
With no communication from the outside like newspapers or radios we had to rely on each other to talk about our past and future plans in our life. Since we were all replacements we were not acquainted with each other and everyone seemed to want to visit and make friends.
The crew lent us chipping hammers, which were made of strips of strap metal but sharpened to chip point where it was loose and had to be pointed.
Since torpedoes were a mystery to us I am sure we all concocted an image in our mind just what a torpedo looked like coming at our ship and what it would do to the ship. This was our greatest worry on the trip. Thoughts of our traveling unescorted and unarmed in this huge sea and imagining what a sure target we would be to enemy aircraft, an armored ship or a submarine was exceptionally handy for daydreams or nightmares. Now that I look back I see that it was extremely helpful in keeping our minds active day and night.
With no escorts, we changed course zigzagging every few minutes on the entire trip to make us a more difficult target for a torpedo and it did make the trip longer.
After 30 days of this any land would look good to us, in fact New Caledonia looked very good to us and I was glad to be with the fine guys in the 353 Engineers.
[Editorís Note: As a auto mechanic, military occupational specialty number 014, with the 353rd Mansel left New Caledonia for Snake Island, Bonika, Russell Islands, Guadalcanal, Espiritu Santo, New Hebrides, Hollandia, New Guinea, Cebu, Manila, Yokohama, Tokyo, Tachikawa and was honorably discharged at Camp McCoy, Wisconsin on February 5, 1946.]
Not all of my life spent in the islands was service related. For instance, one day as a truck load of us were returning from a work detail on one of the Russell Islands, we very surprisingly spotted a dog in the jungles. I told the truck driver and asked him to back up.
I got off the truck and, as I approached the black Labrador sized dog with a short tail and white specks in the black fur, it growled and showed its white teeth. Coming from a small dairy farm where we always had one or two cow dogs, I felt comfortable offering the back of my hand and talking low in a friendly sympathetic tone even though at times she showed those white teeth and growled a bit. Shortly I was able to let it sniff the back of my hand and finally pet her.
The dog walked back in the direction it came from. I followed only a short distance and amazingly there was a litter of black puppies. The mother very hesitantly let me near them. I notified the fellows on the truck and a couple came to the litter. I asked them not to come close because she was just beginning to accept me. After several discussions and more careful attention the mother permitted me to touch a couple of her offspring. They were so young they hadnít yet opened their eyes. We were finally permitted to touch then handle them although we were watched very very closely and at times she showed her white teeth and growled. Each guy took a puppy or two and we slowly made our way to the truck. It seemed that I was the only one that was permitted to lift her up in the truck.
Stories about this got around in Company A which prompted everyone to come around and take a look. A bed made of old tarps was placed in the corner of our sleeping tent. It seemed that she only trusted me to feed her so she could nurse the 6 little ones.
After they aged a few days and opened their eyes they could run around to be greeted by the guys. Everyone loved them and they loved back. They seemed to give love that GIís couldnít provide for each other. Two of them died very shortly but the other four thrived very well. We named the mother Lady, one Ponch, one Tommie and I donít recall the other two names. Everyone looked after them and worried about the officers not permitting them; however, they must have loved them as much as the grunts because not a word was ever said about them.
Our next worry was how are we going to conceal or get them on the ship when we make another island. I felt that I could get Lady to do most anything if I talked and was gentle with her. For several evenings, when we knew we were leaving in a couple weeks, I got some buddies to help put Lady in an empty duffel bag with the top open. I carried her around then finally was able to close it and carry her around for a short time. We then extended the time. Two puppies fit in a bag so they had company. On boarding ship day, we would get our buddies to take our bags with our belongings and we took the dogs. After climbing up the rope web or ladder, we told the Navy we needed a rope to hoist some bags up. We threw one end down to the barge where a guy would tie it to the duffel bag and we would hoist it up. Now our worry was would the Navy permit this but of the trips to five islands thereafter no one objected. Probably because they made friends with everyone very easily.
Lady and the puppies ate everything brought out of the mess halls and enjoyed it. This almost convinced us that a diet of Vienna sausage, hash, spam and S.O.S. was pretty good food. They grew into fine looking dogs eating the army chow we brought out to them. They knew where the exit end of the tent was and some times were a little aggressive in getting to the one bringing the food out for them. One little guy had his little front paw stepped on by some big guy wearing those heavy old GI shoes. The little guy yelped, barked, cried and whimpered as he held his little paw up and showed a very pitiful expression on his face. Because everyone thought so much of their ďmanís best friendĒ several fellows stopped, petted and talked to him and examined the little paw that was being held up. After a while everyone felt that they had done all they could and all that attention must be healing because he put his paw down on the ground and walked away without a limp.
They developed a skin disorder to which we applied a salve. One died with fits and one disappeared. It was rumored that another outfit took one but Lady was still with us when we got to Japan. After being there five days she disappeared. We were sad but thankful for the time we enjoyed them.
There must be a question as to how I remember the details. Well, I have always loved dogs starting with my boyhood growing up days on the dairy farm with the cow dogs. This was also something I could relate to and was far from the routine army life. I have reminisced many times after leaving the service of the dog experiences because those were some of the lighter times.
[Editorís note: Mansel had a rough passage home from Japan and did not feel up to par until arriving back home.]
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