Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Daddy's War

Today is Veteran's Day. The first thing I want to do is say thank you for your service to all veterans, reservists, and active duty military personnel. I am grateful for all the blessings bestowed on our country and acknowledge that, without your service, they would not be possible.

I'm going to do something a little different on my blog today. 

My dad, James Oran Skelton, served in the US Army during World War II. Although he was very proud of his service, he rarely spoke of it. I know he talked about it when he was with other veterans, including my brother Charlie, my brother-in-law Mack, and my cousin Rod. But never with us kids.

When we cleaned out my mother's house, we found a file folder that held some of the papers related to his service including his discharge papers. I brought it home, stuck it in a drawer, and promptly forgot about it. I found it again last summer when I was doing my annual sorting and cleaning of paperwork. It looked interesting so I made myself a cup of coffee and sat down to sort through it. What I found was a handwritten account of Daddy's service from his induction to his discharge. I believe it was written in the late1960s when he was trying to get some disability through the VA.

I think you might find it interesting, so I'm publishing it today in honor of Veteran's Day. It's kind of long but I wanted to post it all. I did not verify the spelling of the European cities and the grammar is as he wrote it.

I received my draft notice in January 1943 to report to Linden, Texas, on February 23, 1943 for induction into the United States Armed Forces.

I reported to the Induction Center as ordered and there I ceased to be a civilian and became a member of the Army. I will never forget that day back on February 23, 1943. I guess there were close to 5,000 of us boys there. We were sent into a large tin building and ordered to take off all our clothes. Evidently the building did not have any heat because soon after we disrobed we were all shaking from the cold.

We really got a good examination from head to foot. I was found to be in perfect physical condition. They asked me which branch of service I wanted and I told them Air Corps, little good that did for I was sent to Camp Walters, Texas Reception Center where I received my uniforms and vaccinations, and I do mean vaccinations. We would have to remove our shirts and line up and it seemed we got vaccinated for every known disease and some that did not exist, I know I had an awful sore arm for several days.

I left Camp Walters, Texas on March 5, 1943 to go to Fort Knox, Kentucky. I arrived at Fort Knox on March 7, 1943 and was escorted to the barracks of the 740th Tank Battalion just in time to see one of the old dilapidated barracks go up in flames. (I am sure they were condemned in World War I.)

I began my basic training on March 15, 1943 and soon learned the penalties for unbuttoned shirts and un-shined shoes. I also learned to love the Fort Knox weather which read rain, snow, and sleet. Then freeze at night, but if I thought that was bad I had more to learn about it, for when I started driving instructions and had to bivouac in Area 19, I found that it was really rough. I still don’t know why we could not have stayed in the barracks and gone to the driving range each day.

My training instructions went something like this:
  • 5 a.m. Reveille 
  • 5:30 a.m. Breakfast of either burned eggs and raw bacon or raw eggs and burned bacon 
  • 6:30 a.m. Police the area 
  • 7:30 a.m. Warm up the tank 
  • 8:00 a.m. Start driving 
  • 8:15 a.m. Get stuck in the mud and spend the rest of the day getting out of the mud 
  • Spend most of the night cleaning up the tank 
  • Repeat the same operation the next day.

On May 12, 1943 the Battalion was relieved from Assigned to Special Troops Armored Forces, and was assigned to the 8th Tank Group under the command of Colonel Fad D. Smith.

Sometime around the end of May or the beginning of June of 1943, I was hospitalized for what they thought was an attack of appendicitis. I was in the hospital for a few days. I now know that it was appendicitis because I suffered from the same symptoms for several years and then had surgery for appendicitis.

How I lived through basic training I will never know. I worked all hours of night and day in all the bad weather for which Kentucky is noted and believe me a G.I. rain coat was never meant to keep a person dry. We suffered a lot of exposure and hardships in basic training which left us all tired and fatigued.

I completed my basic training on June 14, 1943. The Battalion then entered in Unit Training which in reality is a continuation of basic training. In fact some of the outfits called it Advanced Basic.

On the July 5, 1943 we were in the field as usual, and we underwent a simulated gas attack from the air. Although I had my gas mask it did not keep the gas from getting on my ears, neck, hands, and all the exposed part of my body. I really burned and itched for a while.

During Advanced Basic Training I fired all the small arms, revolvers, rifles, sub-machine guns, 30 caliber machine gun, 50 caliber machine gun, and the 75 mm tank gun. I did well with them all.
While all this was going on someone in Washington was cooking up great things for me. On August 7, 1943 I was granted a furlough, along with half of the battalion. Of course, I am sure if we had known what was in store for us when the furloughs were over, we would probably have told them that we didn’t want a furlough.

When we returned to Fort Knox after our furlough, we found that we were again to undergo a change. Our battalion had been chosen to participate in one of the Army’s most closely guarded secrets. Because many of the boys could not pass security checks, there were considerable changes in our personnel. I received my top-secret clearance and moved from the main post to “Area X” where we were confined. We were, you might say, prisoners of the United States Army.

The thing we were to train with was so secret that we received no orders through the mail; all were brought by special carrier directly from Washington.

No one was allowed to leave “Area X” for any reason for fear that somehow this closely guarded secret might leak out.

During the time we were receiving Technical Training at Fort Knox “Area X” a group of high Army Authorities were in Arizona to set up a camp for us to train in. They chose a valley about 10 miles wide and 40 miles long, completely surrounded by mountains.

No man having joined up with our outfit could be dismissed for any reason so there had to be a hospital constructed along with our camp so it took some time to get it set up.

We received orders to leave “Area X” Fort Knox and go to train to Bouse, Arizona, but when we reached the railroad station there was no train ready for us, so we bivouacked near the Gold Vaults for about 5 days, until we could secure transportation.

We boarded the train on the October 12, 1943 and arrived in Bouse, Arizona on October 15, 1943. Trucks were waiting to carry us to camp; this was my first introduction to the desert of our far West. I was soon to learn that everything had a sting or bite to it. The area was filled with such things as rattlesnakes, sidewinders, Gila monsters, tarantulas, and scorpions.

On my way to camp I passed an ammunition truck which had blown up, and scattered duds for about 200 yards in all directions. I began to wonder just how realistic the desert training was to be. I was soon to learn that it was to be plenty real.

I still suffer from the hardships I went through in desert training. Prior to the time I was in Arizona, I had never been bothered with hay-fever. Now I have it all the time. It was caused by so much dust.
While in the desert some of our restrictions were lifted. We were allowed to go to town once a month, but there was a catch to this, we had to go five on a pass. All of us had to stay together and watch each other so there would not be a chance to make a slip as to the kind of training we were getting. I still cannot reveal the training or what it consisted of. Although it was never used, it is still top secret, and will probably revolutionize tank warfare if it is ever put into use.

On March 15, 1944 we received orders that we could no longer draw supplies from the desert training center, so we would have to look elsewhere for clothing and equipment to fill our overseas quotas. By this time we had completed our training cycle so all that was left for us to do was police the area and salvage as much of the camp as possible, and then go to Fr. Knox, and draw clothing and equipment in preparation for the excursion to Europe.

We bade goodbye to the jackrabbits and rattlesnakes and on April 24 we boarded the train for Fort Knox, Kentucky.

When we left the desert we knew that we were scheduled to go overseas, but as we neared Fort Knox we wondered if the orders would somehow be changed and we would sit out the war in the “Headmasters Office.”

We arrived at Fort Knox on April 28, 1944. It was standard operating procedure at Fort Knox to entrain and detrain in the rain and our unloading process did not violate the regulation, we were soaked to the skin when we reached our quarters, which by the way, turned out to be the same old dilapidated barracks which we had occupied during our first stay at Fort Knox.

We expected to be in Fort Knox no more than two weeks but it stretched into several before we left and as usual we spent most of our time in the field.

Although we were far from combat zones, we got a taste of what it would be like when one of the boys picked up a 37 MM dud and brought it to Observation Point 6, where our company was taking instruction. He began hammering it on a rock and it exploded killing three men, and wounding nineteen others. I was lucky I was not wounded, but my nerves were shot to hell. I will never forget that day, June 6, 1944.

Finally we received orders to arrive at Camp Kilmer, New Jersey not before July 20 and not later than July 21, 1944. On July 19 we boarded the train for Camp Kilmer. Needless to say it was raining.

At Camp Kilmer we were given another physical examination for overseas duty. We left Camp Kilmer on July 24 and by noon we were aboard the USS General William Mitchell. On the morning of the July 26 we sailed from New York. A few miles out of the harbor we joined a convoy of 15 other troopships and 16 fast tankers. At last we were off to war.

The USS General William Mitchell was a new type ship, she had no port holes and we soon found out, no ventilating system. It was stiflingly hot and everything smelled so bad. I was really seasick all the time. The ship although new, left a lot to be desired.

The only excitement during the trip occurred one evening. A small speck appeared off our left on the radar scanning disc. Everyone thought it was an enemy submarine. The fact that we were in “Hell’s Corner” which is about a day’s run from Northern Ireland added to this belief. We were really relieved when it was discovered to be a school of fish.

We landed at Liverpool, England on August 6, 1944. At 3 o’clock on the August 7, we left the ship and boarded the train for Glynderwen, Wales.

We arrived at our new Camp Rosebush to find it nothing more than a windswept side of a rocky hill. When it wasn’t raining, the wind was blowing and most of the time it was doing both. There we became a part of the 9th Armored Group.

While in England, I had the misfortune of getting my ring finger, right hand, almost cut off. I was inspecting Tank Guns on M-3 Tanks. Someone had left the spline shaft out and the breech block fell on my finger causing a compound fracture. I stayed in the hospital for several weeks. I am still bothered with this, as it did not grow back straight. It also caused me considerable embarrassment the rest of my Army time, because it was impossible for me to salute properly. It took lots of chewing outs because of it.

We stayed in England until the 29th of October 1944, I will never forget that date when at Waymouth, England we loaded on the L.S.T. boats and crossed the English Channel. It was a rough passage.

We landed on Utah Beach on the 30th of October 1944. It was raining and sleeting. We bivouacked for the night and soon learned we had no orders for our movement East. Believe me, Utah Beach left a lot to be desired in the way of cleanliness, comfort, and facilities. It was an expanse of mud which had been churned into a fine soup by thousands of vehicles.

We left Utah Beach on November 2, 1944 and bivouacked that night in a field near Brecy, France. As usual the bivouac area was knee-deep in mud and it was raining.

We resumed the march the next morning to Brecy, St. Hilaire de Harcourt, Sees, Maulins le Marche, St. Anne, Longny, Leferte, Vidame, Senouches, Chateauneut, Maintenon. We bivouacked for the night at Maintenon, went through the outskirts of Paris the next day and bivouacked that night on the Eastern edge of Paris at Clichy, Sous, Bais. We again resumed the march on the 5th of November and followed the “Red Ball” route.

I can’t remember all the towns we went through, but I do remember that it was just one big rain storm. I think we spent more time pushing trucks out of the mud holes than we did riding in them. It was awful cold.

We finally arrived at Neufchateau, Belgium which was to be our headquarters for a while. The camp consisted of an apple orchard in which we pitched our pup tents.
By this time winter hd really set in in Europe. We really suffered as each man had only two blankets, one for a bed and the other for cover.

It was here that I got my first taste of the German V-1 flying bomb or Buzz bomb as we called them. Shortly before dark, one came over at an altitude of about 300 feet and the engine cut off directly over the camp. Boy was I scared, it landed about one-half mile from my tent. After the bomb had crashed we really enlarged our foxholes or “wells” we called them because they were always full of water.

The first night at this camp there was at least 50 buzz bombs passed over our heads. Apparently headed for Antwerp, Belgium. Our camp was directly in line with Antwerp which was the target.

Later in the month when the Germans attempted to destroy Liege, Belgium with buzz bombs a good many of them malfunctioned in flight and landed quite close to camp. Some days we counted 103 buzz bombs. Today, looking back on what I encountered during the war, I still consider the buzz bombs as one of Hitler’s most terrifying instruments. In addition to its destructive power, the noise it made was very deafening. It also had a habit of playing tricks such as passing over the camp and them make a complete turn, dive, and then explode. I still think that perhaps the Germans had some kind of control over them and was trying to bomb our camp. If I live to be a hundred years old, I’ll never forget Belgium and the buzz bombs.

While at this camp we turned in all our tanks to the United States Army Reserve. We spent most of our time day and night patrolling the area and hunting out German Paratroopers which was being dropped behind our front lines. We captured quite a few.

On the 17th of December 1944, we received orders that the Germans had made a breakthrough and that we would probably be called on to fight with what weapons we had. This consisted of our personal weapons which was mostly of 45 automatic pistols, with a few carbines and sub-machine guns. We really felt let down as we were tankers and not foot-soldiers and had never had the fundamental training of a foot soldier.

On the 18th of December our Battalion received orders to send a company to an Ordnance Vehicles Depot at Ayniaille, Belgium and draw any kind of vehicles we could and then get into combat. The company I was in was chosen, “Company C.” When we reached the Ordnance depot we found that they had very few tanks which were suitable for combat and none had combat loads. We worked all night and finally pieced up about fifteen tanks.

We entered combat the 19th day of December. It was really rough, I remember that I got very sick just from seeing the dead and wounded soldiers along the road. I think I vomited up most of my insides that first day. I’ll always remember those men begging for help that we just had to pass on our way to the front.

We were attached to the 119th Infantry Regiment of the 30th Infantry Division. In our first thirty minutes of combat we knocked out three German tanks and killed many German infantry boys.
We had stopped the German breakthrough, better known as the Belgium Bulge, but could we hold them back? We had been well trained and were too scared to retreat. We dug in for the night and moved out the next day.

The Germans had regrouped during the night and we really caught hell the next morning, but we continued to advance.

At about 4 o’clock on the evening of the 20th of December the tank I was riding in ran over an anti-tank mine. It stopped us cold. It split the tank bottom from end to end. I was blown against the top of the tank and rendered unconscious. I don’t know how I got out of the tank. I came to at an aid station where I was treated for a head wound. My ears hurt very badly and I was nearly dead with a headache and my lungs felt like they would burst.

Nevertheless, every man was needed for combat. On the morning of the 21st we continued in combat and I continued to feel worse.

On Christmas Day 1944, we were trying to cross a railroad. The Germans had it zeroed in so we called for Air Support to knock out the German tanks so we could get through the underpass and continue our attack. Some way or other they got us mixed up with the Germans and bombed hell out of us.

When it was over we found that out of a Company of Infantry boys that was with us, only 19 were able to fight and out of seventeen tanks we only had five left. When the US planes started bombing us, we had all left the tanks. I don’t know how, but somehow I swam across a river which was nearby and got up against a cliff. I was wet all over and it was so cold my clothes froze on me. Somehow I recrossed the river and rejoined my outfit.

We really sweated that night because we knew that if the Germans realized how few men we had left we would be overrun.

My head and chest still bothered me. I had heard of blast concussion but I did not realize it was so bad. My throat felt dry and sore and I had begun to talk with a hoarseness.

We continued in combat day and night. There was no such thing as sleep while in combat. By this time I was really fatigued and under a great strain. I felt weak all over. I did not know it then, but I did not have many more days left in combat. Somehow I managed to keep going until the 4th day of January 1945. By then my throat was so sore that I could not talk, my ears so bad I could hardly hear, and my head hurting so badly I could hardly tell what I was doing. I don’t remember going to the hospital. I have been told that elements of the 82nd Airborne picked me up and took me to the hospital.

I must have gone through several field and station hospitals, but the first I remember was in Paris, France. I don’t know how long I remained there, but I was sent from there to England. I was not able to be flown to England because of my ears, so I had to go by boat. I had pneumonia, bronchitis, laryngitis, and fatigue. I know now that it was caused by the blast I received when my tank ran over the mine. I am still bothered with my head, ears, throat, and chest. Before concussion I could holler as loud as anyone. Now I can’t. I have spent several weeks out of every year since then not being able to speak above a whisper. From the first cool weather, my voice bothers me most of the time until warm weather the next Spring. My neck and head hurt all the time.

I did not see any more combat, as I stayed in the hospital until about two weeks before the end of the war in the E.T.O. When I was discharged from the hospital, I was sent back to my Company. I was on my way back, at a replacement center in France, when the war ended. That was the happiest day of my life.

I don’t know just when I rejoined my company but it was two or three weeks after the war was over. After the war, we more or less relaxed. Of course we still had duties such as guard and check points to perform, but we were not under the strain we had been during combat.

I came back to the United States in December of 1945 on the USS Cald Dail Victory. The voyage was quite different from the one I spent going over, although I did get seasick. My head, throat, ears, and chest were still bothering me but by now I had accepted the fact that I would have to live with it.

I landed in New York and went to Camp Miles Standish. From there I was sent to Fort Sam Houston, Texas where I received my discharge. While there I did not make an application for compensation as I wanted to get home as soon as possible.

During the time I was in the Army I received the following awards, American Theater Campaign Ribbon, E,A,M,E, campaign ribbon with three bronze stars, Good Conduct ribbon, two overseas service bars, and the Distinguished Unit Badge, (Presidential Citation) Go 9 Hq. 740 Tank BN, and the Purple Heart.

I received my discharge on the 9th of December 1945 and returned home. Soon after my discharge I found that I was so nervous that I had to have treatment for nervous indigestion. Every year since then I have had to have treatment on my throat and chest.

I have held down steady employment since my discharge with liberal sick leave and annual leave being used when I have had the winter attacks. Until April 29, 1960, when I became so ill with the same symptoms as I have had for the past 15 years that I have been unable to work most of the year. I spent from April 29, 1960 until June 13, 1960 in hospitals for treatment for my head, neck, and ears and from August 12, 1960 until September 12, 1960 in the hospital for headache, neck and ears, which I believe is caused by post-concussion.

As I write this my neck and head hurts to bad that I can hardly stand it.

I certify that to the best of my knowledge that this is a true history of my Military Service as a soldier in the United States of America’s Army.

That's my dad's story. I know there are millions more like it.

Out of curiosity, I did a web search for Bouse, Arizona. I had never heard of it and did not know anything about it. There is not a lot of information about it, but I found this. I could not find anything about what my dad called Area X in Kentucky.

1 comment:

  1. What a story! Thank you so much for sharing it. I wish I had a story like this from my own Dad. A few years ago my aunt found a 16 page letter that my Uncle had written. He was at Pearl Harbor when it was bombed. His story touches my heart, too. Thanks again for sharing this. If you are still teaching or temping -- I would share that with the students! Your Dad really expresses the challenges of what he went through so well.