It is highly likely that the Allies would have won World War II even had I not volunteered for service in early 1944. But my unanticipated assignment to the 95th Infantry Division, as it prepared to join General George Patton as he marched across Europe, had its memorable moments for me if not for history. Perhaps a few are worth mentioning to my friends and relatives.
By the late spring of 1944, several thousand of us had assembled at Boston's Constitution Pier and boarded the once chic ocean liner USS America, for the trip across the Atlantic. My first cruise.
We were told we would go it alone, no convoy, because we could outrun the feared German subs prowling the north Atlantic. This made me a bit nervous.
Except for endless hours of seasickness, it was uneventful. We landed in Liverpool, a dreadful looking industrial city, boarded a train and headed into the guts of southern England to an air force base in Andover, between Salisbury and Winchester. Two quiet cathedral towns that the war had somehow spared.
But London was another matter. By 1944 it had become a brutally devastated city, in desperate search of survival. Battered by the blitz bombings for several horrible years, it was World War II at its bleakest, at least in the European theater.
There were memorable moments for us as we waited our turn to head for the battle grounds of France. The weekends were spent in London only a short train ride away. Much of our time was spent walking around the totally blacked out streets, accosted by whores in Soho, and almost everywhere else. But for one reason or another, I remained a virgin. Honest. I was still a kid of 18, only months out of Heights High, still faithful to my lovely girlfriend, Rita Barnett.
I admired the grit and bravery of the Brits as they fought off the hated Hitler for several years while we had stood by as FDR declared our neutrality. “America Firsters” led by Lindberg and others had insisted successfully that this was not our war.
From our base in Andover, we watched the unmanned B bombs (something like our drones of today) fly over, turn themselves off, and dive toward greater London, almost indefensible, as were the nasty V2 rockets that came later. They dropped silently out of the sky to do their devastation without warning.
One day the word came that we were going to Southampton and then on to Europe to join Patton, who was bogged down in France. He needed help for his weary divisions, as well as gasoline for his tanks.
Our particular unit almost let him down. We missed the boat that was supposed to take us from Southampton across the channel on to the beach at Normandy.
This was not like missing a plane from Cleveland to La Guardia. This was big time. We were headed to war, but our bags did not show up.
Can you imagine the look on our platoon leader Lt Connolly's face when he discovered the luggage was missing?!
"We're not going, guys," he declared.
I didn't know whether to laugh or cry.
He repeated, "We're not going into Omaha Beach without our bags."
I thought half seriously, “What will Gen. Eisenhower say? Will we all be court marshalled for missing the landing of the 95th at Normandy? What will Gen, Patton think of us? Cowards?”
Permit me to digress for a moment and look back to another rather meaningful moment in the lives of Lt. Connelly and Private Weidenthal. Wind the clock back a number of months, to just before we shipped overseas. For some god-awful reason we were moved to the mountains of West Virginia for "mountain maneuvers." Some genius in headquarters dreamed that up. They called it Snake River Canyon. Pretty serious stuff, pretending to be the real thing. As a member of the crucial message center unit, I was assigned to the pigeon patrol. It was a dirty and dangerous job, considering that these birds had no choice but to go the bathroom in the cage on my back.
It was in the name of good communications, since we had no equipment to talk from battalion to battalion over the mountains, we depended on the dirty birds. Somehow they knew instinctively where to go and like magic they got us connected. It really worked. I learned to love those birds. Truth be told, it was a love hate relationship.
One day Lt. Connolly announced that we were going to learn to "rappel".
“What!” I said to myself.
I get dizzy looking off the sides of those cliffs.
Well you know the story...when my turn came up I jumped off the cliff and let myself down a few feet with the rope. Then I flipped upside down, and found myself staring into the abyss below .
"Hang on!" the guys shouted. "Hang on".
At the moment there was very little choice. I felt my life was in the balance and I really did not want to die in West Virginia, of all places.
It was Lt. Connolly who came to the rescue. With two guys hanging on to him, he slid over the edge and grabbed me. The rest is history.
Back to Southampton and the missing duffle bags:
It turned out all right. After a few hours of tension, the duffles finally arrived by truck. We loaded them on to a British ship and headed east to rejoin the 95th on the beach the next day.
I shuddered a bit as we clamored off the ship and on to the beach where so many brave Americans and Brits had died only a month or so earlier.
But there was no time for philosophizing as we marched across the sand and under that historic sign erected just after D day. “Through these gates
march the bravest men In the United States Army".
Scared, more like it.
And it was only the beginning.
(to be continued...)