February 11, 2008
John B. Web
This is written with the intent to add to the history of the l09th Engineer Combat Battalion some of the activities of the companies "A" and "C". These two companies were separated from the direct command of the battalion, each at different times. "A" Company left the then 109th Engineer Combat Regiment as part of the advance party of the 34th Infantry Division which went to North Ireland, leaving New York on January 15, 1942.
An Engineer Company at that time consisted of only two platoons and a company headquarters. Soon after "A" Company left Fort Dix, New Jersey, the 34th Division, including the Engineer Regiment, was reorganized to become triangularized. That meant that "A" Company had a third platoon - two platoons in North Ireland and one in the U.S.A. The remainder of the battalion did not arrive in North Ireland until May 1942.
"C" Company left North Ireland for Scotland in August 1942 to take invasion training. It was part of a combat team composed of the 168th Infantry Regiment, an Artillery Battalion and a few other units that made the invasion of North Africa at Algiers under the command of a British general.
Trying to recall the times and places and names is difficult. In fact, the things I relate are only as I remember them since my memory seems to get worse as the years go by. I wrote many letters to my wife Wilma and she has kept all of them. I will use them to refresh my memory and yours, too, of some of events and thoughts of the time. I am using excerpts from these letters to show my feelings during that period about our everyday living. The letters tie down the dates of the incidents, the weather, and our living conditions. I also started keeping a diary in September 1942. I have used it in my writing, but it only covers the period of time we were in Africa.
I think it was about the l0th of January 1942 that I was transferred to "A" Company, and told to get it ready for movement, but I was not informed where the company was to be relocated. The 109th Engineer Regiment was then at Fort Dix, New Jersey. At 1:30 o'clock on January 13, 1942, I was awakened and told that "A" Company would be part of a special task force and I was to requisition all shortages immediately. The requisition had to be turned in at Division Headquarters by 7:30 that morning. Thanks to a very good supply sergeant, we got the job done.
"A" company left Fort Dix the next day for New York by train. We boarded an old ship, the Chateau Thierry, which I learned had been taken out of dry dock. We left in a convoy headed into the North Atlantic Ocean. I was told that the roughness of the North Atlantic in the winter time made travel safer from submarines than a more southerly route. After a few days out we hit very rough weather and I was not sure whether the ship would capsize. I was so seasick I did not much care if it did!
We landed at Belfast, North Ireland on January 26, 1942. The British moved us into a place not far from Belfast. It was an old estate with a big house called a Manor House and several quanset-type huts for barracks. The whole setup provided only the bare essentials. The British issued us the same rations they gave their soldiers except we got an extra issue of bread. I felt very sorry for our Mess Sergeant and his cooks as the equipment in the kitchen was not up to our standards, but they did a very good job considering the stoves, equipment and lack of beer and pork. I often would hear one or more of our soldiers on the way to the mess hall say, "I guess we'll be having more goat." On the 30th of January 1942 I wrote, "We are on daylight savings time here so we get up before daylight. It is so dark at revielle that you cannot see if all your men are present or not. "
February 22nd I wrote, "It is hard to travel in the country because there are no road signs. Without a road map it would be impossible. " On March 8, 1942, "I have been very busy now for the past week or more. The last partof last week we moved into different quarters. "
Or course censorship would not let us give our exact location but the new quarters were in the city of Coleraine, North Ireland. These quarters were in an old, out of business, Irish whiskey distillery. There was a house facing the street. which used to have the office on the ground floor and there were bedrooms above it. On one side of the house was a warehouse connected to the house by a wall on the street side. The wall extended on the other side of the house which became a part of another big building which had very large rooms. This was used as a barracks for the men. The warehouse building had big padlocks on the doors. This was the storage place for aging Irish whiskey. I found that out when the Colonel, who was the 34th Division I.G. came to visit. He told me that the Irish police had filed a complaint that the whiskey warehouse had been broken into and a keg had been tapped. They suspected that we Americans had done it. I assured the Colonel that it could not be any of my men. I was sure because noneof them had been drunk or disorderly.
NOTE: It seems now that I was wrong. At one of the 109th Engineer Battalion reunions in Rapid City I was talking with a few men from my old unit and one said, "You know Captain, about that whiskey that was missing from the warehouse in Coleraine -- we got it!"
It was while we were in Coleraine that we were kept busy getting the trucks and all of the engineer equipment of the l09th Engineer Battalion from incoming ships at the dock in Belfast. Lt. Baker, Lt. Lee and Lt. Karge with their men were going into Belfast every few days to bring the vehicles and lotsof other things marked for the Engineer Battalion up to an open field on a hill a short distance from our whiskey distillery home.
Letter, dated March 16, 1942, Coleraine reads, "Tomorrow is St. Patrick's Day and the schools will be closed. There is a little girl here who brings us our morning newspapers. She has asked us to come to her school tomorrow to a program of some kind or another. She says they are going to sing some of our songs. I would like to go but am afraid I won't be able to make it. In any event, I should call her headmaster before going. She is a cute little kid, plenty smart and has taken quite a shine to Lt. Lee."
"Tonight there were about 8 or 9 little girls in about the 3rd, 4th and 5th grades outside our street door. I spent ten or fifteen minutes talking with them. They brought us some shamrocks and told us to be sure and wear them tomorrow."
I spent very little time in Belfast - most often it was a business trip. After one such trip I wrote to Wilma. From that letter dated March 20, 1942, Coleraine: "Many of the streets are narrow and crowded in Belfast. The place is literally overrun with street cars. People come out from any place and run for the street cars. Many of them jump on while the car is moving. Why the people do not get run over I do not know. You have to be on the lookout all the time or you are going to run over someone. With a big truck, such as we had today, it is hard to pass a street car because the distance from the curb and the car is just wide enough to let you through. Except for the main street you find hundreds of horse and wagons. We had one hellof a time dodging wagons, bicycles, pedestrians, little type Austin cars and street cars."
Our "A" Company truck drivers did an excellent, job. Especially when you consider they had to get used to driving on the left side of the road and battle the kindof traffic conditions in Belfast. I do not remember our boys having an accident but because other units were having accidents, General Hartle at a staff meeting ordered unit commanders to have an officer ride in each truck that was dispatched. That meant that in very small units that had only one officer, that officer was constantly on the road.
I do not remember just when we moved from Coleraine to Enneskillen but I think it was about the 15th of April, 1942. It was a distance of about 90 miles, over Irish roads with no road signs. There was a section of our route to Enneskillen that went down almost into Southern Ireland, that is, the Irish Free State. The report was that if you went there, you would be interned. This move was our most difficult move. We had all of the 109th Engineer Battalion vehicles and other equipment which meant that we had more vehicles than we had men in the company. Lt. Baker took a detail of men and a good numberof vehicles to our new camp at Enneskillen several days ahead of the main part of the company's move. By returning with most of the men in one truck we were able to take everything remaining by assigning almost every man to drive a truck. Only a few of these men were trained military vehicle drivers. These men did an outstanding job. I could not have done this with a bunch of city boys. This camp, a mile or so from Enneskillen out in the farm area was where we saw farming people at their work.
From a letter dated May 3, 1942, Enneskillen: "It is spring and all the boys are beginning to get restless. We went through town yesterday and saw quite a pretty girl. My truck driver nearly fell out the door. After recovering, he said that he would have sworn there was not as beautiful a woman in all of North Ireland. I have seen some of the most dirty, homely looking women since I have been here. People here seem to be afflicted with bad teeth, the women, flat-chested."
"Farmers here are sowing their grain now. I have seen only two grain drills in the several hundred miles I have traveled the past week. Everywhere they sow the grain the old fashioned method of scattering by hand. Potatoes are planted by hand. To us, they do everything the hard way."
I do not have a date that the Battalion as a whole arrived in North Ireland. As near as I can figure it must have been May 12, 1942. From some of the newspaper items about the arrival it was May 18, 1942. "A" Company's 3rd platoon was now present in North Ireland. In a few days I was transferred to Battalion Headquarters.
On the 28th of June, 1942, I was given orders assigning me to Company "C" as commanding officer. Captain Brown had been transferred to Battalion Headquarters to the staff position of S-3. On the 12th of July I was promoted to Captain. About a month later Company "C" as part of a combat team with the 168th Infantry Regiment was shipped to Scotland for invasion training. At this time the officers were Lt. Baker, Lt. Lee, Lt. Karge, Lt. Crichton and myself. These were the same officers with the exception of Lt. Crichton that were in Company "A" when it left the U.S.A. in January for North Ireland. Going to Scotland was a very easy trip by ship. I think we landed at Glasgow. We were sent to a camp at or near Inverary, which is on Loch Fyne, where we took assault boat training. This was a small British camp with the quanset hut type barracks. The British army officer, a captain, who was camp commander wasn't very friendly and gave the impression he wasn't exactly glad to see us. The quanset huts they furnished us were in very bad shape, very dirty. The cots for us to sleep on were made entirely of wood strips placed about one inch apart where the springs should be. In the center of the hut was a somewhat rusty black stove with a coal bucket beside it. We were informed that each hut was to get just one bucket of coal per day.
During most of the days we were out practicing assault landings from boats operated by Canadian soldiers. We would have to wade ashore so our feet, shoes and socks were always wet, besides it rained a good part of the time. When we came back to the hut we got a bucket of wet coal and worked to get a fire going in the stove. One bucket of coal would not produce heat enough to dry out the wet socks, shoes and clothing. The coal for this camp was enclosed by a high wire fence and a British soldier would be there at an appointed time to issue each hut one bucket of coal. The rest of the day the coal yard was locked up. Some of my boys would go there at night, boost one fellow over the fence who would then throw coal out for the other boys to fill the coal bucket. One night the British camp commander caught them doing this.of course, I got a lecture from him about my American soldiers. I don't remember what I said to the officer, but I knew that even though coal was rationed we needed to get our clothes dry.
As soon as "C" Company finished its training in Inverary it was moved, about the 20th of September, 1942, to a swamp-like place a few miles from Paisley. Lt. Baker and the mess sergeant with the cooks had preceded the rest of the company and had been working on the camp site. When I saw this place I wanted to start looking for a better campsite. This one was terrible, but Lt. Baker told me that the higher headquarters had assured him there was no better site available. Even with the near constant rain we had been having it seemed that there should be a better place.
On the 24th of September, 1942 I wrote a letter to Wilma which stated, "The sun is shining just this minute and it feels good. We can do with a lot of sunshine. It has rained every day now since we've been here. I have had my boots on continuously. The only time I take them off is when I go to bed, even then I park them beside my bed so I can get into them right away. We have improved our area a little by draining and hauling rock and sawdust. There is a lot more to be done if we knew how long we were going to be here."
It rained most every day, not hard downpours, but light continuous rain. We slept in small British field tents with side walls about 2 feet high and the pitched roof started from there. The peak of the roof is not high enough so you could stand up. There was no way the soldiers could keep their clothes clean and dry. Lt. Baker and I went into Paisley (about October l0th) and made arrangements to have a place do the laundry for the "C" Company men.
Col. "Iron" Mike O'Daniel was in command of the 168th Infantry Regiment and was also the combat team commander. In my letters or diary when I mention the Colonel it is Colonel 0' Daniel.
On September 29, 1942 I started keeping a diary. "Parade and review this afternoon. It went fairly well. Colonel O'Daniel says there is to be one each week until we leave."
NOTE: Almost all information now is taken from my diary. "10:30 P.M. Just came from the commanders' meeting. I would like to try some of the things the Colonel suggested on underwater demolitions but doubt if we ever get the material."
"This company has needed a good working over for some time -- officers and men, including myself. I hope to give it to them tomorrow as a start. It is a mudhole we live in, but it can be improved and it will be."
September 30, 1942. "Conference all afternoon to orient I.JS on Exercise PEP. Came back and found platoon leaders had done little or nothing in the way of policing up this area. Inside of tents looked like boars' nests. I'm writing this by candle light. I'm wondering when I'll get time to straighten up my things in this tent. I'm here only to sleep."
October 1, 1942. "Had a short maneuver this afternoon. I walked about 8 or 10 miles. Another meeting tomorrow morning, Overnight maneuvers for tomorrow night. Not much in these exercises for engineers without our equipment. I hope we can get some barbed wire etc. to do some experimenting next week. There are several things we can do. Hope we can get some beehives. We have come a long way this past month. This
mudhole we live in is the biggest drawback. I wonder when we are going and how soon."
October 3, 1942. "Got in from maneuvers at 8:00 clock and went right to bed. Captain Shemp woke me up. I was to draw the money to pay the men. I spent all afternoon getting the company paid. Some of the truck drivers are on convoy to port and we have three men in the hospital to pay." The next several days were spent going on small maneuvers. October 9, 1942. "I was called to Combat Team Headquarters S-1 this afternoon. I got to see some maps etc.”
October 15, 1942. "Caton moved out at 7:10 this morning. I was up at 5 o'clock to see them get ready and take off. We lost a couple of men by transfer; one was Sgt. Morrell. I promoted Meredith and Pitsenberger. Lt. Baker moved out with 44 men this P.M. We move tomorrow morning, Lt. Lee and 28 men two hours later. “ "We got to the dock in pretty good time but it took a good 3 to 4 hours to get our troops aboard the ship (Karen). This ship's adjutant was dumber than dumb! The next few days were spent in training. Over the side of the ship and into L.C.T. landing craft, then on to the shore. Most of this was done under darkness. On October 21, 1942 we simulated a landing and assault landing at 3 A.M. in the mud and water. We walked about 8 miles back to our embarkation point. Someplace in the dark of night we lost our 9 demolition men, so we came back to the ship without them. We found them at the ship.
I needed to get material to make bangalore torpedoes. I went ashore with Captain Shaw and he gave me a ride to Inveraray. The person I wanted to see was not available. I then went over to the training center and explained what I wanted. They gave me a driver and car. We went to Killbrude where I found this person Ward-Walters. He gave me seven 21-pound cases of ammonial with 30 gun cotton primers. I then drove to Admiralty House and got them to call the ship Ardrishug asking for a boat to pick me up. It was nearly dark when I got to the Ardrishug dock and no boat. I had them signal the ship Karen for a boat. Karen replied that they could not get me till morning. A naval officer asked me about my problems; he had been handling my messages to the ships. He said he had a cabin cruiser available and he would get me to the ship. I then picked up two E.M.’s. at Invenaray who got stranded there after maneuvers. They were from the 39th Combat Team. I took them to our ship, the Karen, for the night. On October 24th I finally got the ammonial and primers distributed to the other ships. I haven't seen Lt. Crichton or Lt. Baker since we were put aboard ship. I think Lt. Baker's ship may be gone. Our ship has moved and we are out in the loch. On October 26th we pulled out of the loch about 9 pm. I was seasick the next day but that was only to be expected. I felt very sorry for my men as they were below deck in a place very far forward. I would get sick every time I went down there. The food aboard the ship was bad -- it was awful! Everyone had complained about it. The food was cooked in the ship's galley from raw foodstuffs taken aboard in India, so Major Moore told me. The Colonel had ordered that an officer of the unit be present in each hold when men brought the food up from the galley and as it was served. The look and smell of the food often did not help my stomach. One day when the stew came, a dipperful with a long hank of hair in it came up as Sgt. Byerly was dishing it out. It looked like it might be a part of a horse's tail. Byerly gulped a bit, grabbed the bucket of stew, went topside and dumped it overboard. I reported all this to Major Moore who was acting executive officer for Colonel O'Daniel. He told me he was doing everything he could to improve the food situation but he was not having much success.
October 31, 1942, "Had a map reading school for my men up on deck today. We had the usual boat drill. " November 2, 1942. "Unknown to me the Colonel had a box, like a child's sand box, brought a board ship. I was assigned the job of making a model of the shore and land in the Algiers area. My men and I worked on it till midnight the first night." November 3, 1942. "We worked on the model all day. I am rather tired. It's certainly a big job. We still have most of the road to put in. We turned in our money for a bogus type of American currency. We have to sew American flags on our sleeves. The men have already done it. We land early Sunday."
November 5, 1942. "We passed the Rock of Gibralter last night. I went up on deck about 12:30 to watch it. Saw two cities on the African coast all lighted up. Was a beautiful sight. It's been 10 months now since I've seen a lighted city. The sea was very calm and almost like glass. The sky was clear and filled with stars. The weather in general has been grand, warm and sun shining. I saw some enemy planes today. It's reported that one ship in our convoy was hit." November 6, 1942. "Loaded the bangalore torpedoes today. Tomorrow night we get ready. Big air-raid today, German planes. I was up on deck and watched the anti-aircraft batteries firing at them."
November 8, 1942. "Got the men all ready at 12:30 A.M. We lay around with our packs and equipment on until 13 o'clock before our signal was called. My pack was nearly killing me as I've got everything in it. The night is beautiful. I went up on deck to watch the landing craft. The sea is fairly smooth. My men and I were at our sally post all night while we waited. About 7 A.M. we loaded. Hit the beach at 8:05 A.M. The summer
homes on the beach are beautiful. Everything seems to be working smoothly as far as enemy resistance is concerned, but as far as our small boat operation or landing and unloading, it was more messed up than any maneuver I've been on."
"The half track crews were on the beach waiting when I landed. I had 18 men. Our 9 demolition men went in at zero hour. Karge and a few are still on the ship. I picked up some of Karge's men and mine and started off for our assembly area. Natives lined the road to watch us go by. An officer stopped us at a crossroad and I had the men get off to the side and wait while I reported to the Command Post. At 9 o'clock I got the men up and pushed off to the assembly area. I posted guides at the beach and all road junctions, moved into the woods and posted guards there. We can hear firing in the distance. It's been going on all morning rather spasmodically. Everything is quiet here. Lt. Lee reported in about 10:10 A.M. in his jeep. I took Lee's jeep and went down to the beach. Things are sure in a mess. We had only one vehicle by 10:30. By the end of the day we had 3-37 guns, 3 weapon carriers, 2 half-tracks and 2 jeeps. I went to the Command Post at 6 o'clock, soon after Colonel O'Daniel reported the French had asked for an Armistice."
November 9, 1942. "The Armistice is still in force. It's reported that the French have capitulated all the way around. I'm still keeping my road blocks out. It is reported that fighting is continuing to our south. They have sent one battery of artillery and one company of infantry to Blida. Lt. Baker and I took a jeep and went into the port today. The ships have stopped unloading at the beach and they are supposed to unload at the harbor dock in Algiers. There are none of our vehicles off as yet and the British (these are British ships) do not seem to be making any attempt to unload the ships. We left the port just before dark right in the thick of an air attack. There was more lead in the air. We stopped in the street way above the port area to watch a part of it and while there, a civilian got stabbed. There was quite a good crowd of people, mostly French, in the wide space just off the street watching the German planes bomb the port area. We were asked to take him to a hospital, but a crowd gathered and they put him in a civilian vehicle. A young lady who spoke good English came to me and recommended that Baker and I leave, considering the hostility of some of the people present. We drove off and went home by the coast road."
November 10. 1942. "We did not do much all day. I took Lt. Baker down to the docks to see if some of our trucks were coming. They are beginning to unload some ships. These British are terribly slow. We located our men from company headquarters at the dock. Most of our personnel are off. They had another big air raid last night. Flares were dropped allover. I left Baker with the men at the dock. It was reported that two of the convoy ships had gone to sea without unloading our jeeps. What a mess they are making of things. "
November 11, 1942. "We are directed to move to the Combat Team Headquarters as soon as we get transportation. Our men on the docks spent a fair night as there was a little air activity. but not a great deal. Our three 6x6 trucks came off in the middle of the morning. The boys de-water proofed them and I took them out of the city in the afternoon. I contacted Sgt. Quinn at the ration dump and sent the trucks to the camp with him. I returned to the docks and found out that the Sobo (a ship) was to dock that afternoon. It did, but nothing came off it while I was there. I located our half track and got it off. Joe Egger and Quackenbush got drunk on wine. I loaded them in the jeep and had the half track with driver follow me out of Algiers just at dark. The half track ran off the road just outside of our camp. The Germans dropped more flares tonight."
November 12, 1942. "Today we got the rest of our trucks, all except the two jeeps and the one 6x6 truck with kitchen trailer. I met Lt. Baker on my way to the city, he was coming with the trucks. He has two of our naval officers with him and an E.M.with him. They were cussing the British Navy. I put them in barracks where there were cots, where we were to move. I heard later today we were to move into different barracks. No flares tonight and no signal lights. No enemy planes came over. Hear that the commandos took the enemy airport down the line aways. Maybe that is the reason."
November 13, 1942. "I looked over our new barracks today. They are not so bad. but the area in general needs a lot of work done on it. The French (Arab troop) are moving out by evening. I got a message from C.T. Headquarters about 2 A.M. to report to the C.P. Our three half tracks with crews are to be alerted and ready to go with a defensive group by 5 A.M. We were from 15 to 30 minutes late. It made no difference because we sat around until 12 o'clock doing nothing. It seems that there is a convoy of British ships coming in with British troops (about 40,000) to unload in the harbor and they were afraid the French, which guard the harbor, might open fire on them. I was proud of our boys, they were there and ready."
November 14. 1942. "I had the first and third platoons go down to our new area today to police it up. The third platoon overhauled the showers and the first platoon cleaned out the barracks. The place is a mess. These French soldiers shit all over everything. Every place you step you are liable to step in it. One can't imagine how filthy it is. The latrine is a mess, too. It is hard to imagine anything so unsanitary. This thing stands up on posts about 5 feet off the ground. There is a little hole in the floor - you are supposed to hit that hole in the floor and have the shit drop into a big can below the building. This thing has got to go."
November 15, 1942 (Sunday). "We moved the company today to our new camp, which at one time was the site of a tile and brick factory. The main or big building had drying racks up on the second story. The men were assigned billets and got fairly well settled. When we get the double bunks built it won't be so crowded. I will get the material for the double bunks out of the drying racks. We set the kitchen up outside for the time being. I had the boys take the air compressor and start digging a new latrine. I hope we can get some material by requisition to fix this place up. It won't be bad then. I took one-third of our company to a memorial service held to honor the men who lost their lives in our recent action of taking Algiers."
November 16, 1942. "I was appointed Camp Commander this morning. The artillery outfit that occupied a part of the camp moved out about 9 A.M. to the Tunisian Front. They left a hell of a mess besides swiping some parts from the 50 caliber machine
gun on our half track and a Tommy gun scabbard. The 168th Infantry antitank company moved in this afternoon and their medics looked over the setup and sent a detail to clean up. I inspected the area this evening and found one post without a guard. I got the First Sergeant to check up on it. It seems the guard found a drunk inside the camp and was getting him out. I sent Sgt. Young with the jeep to pick him up and take him to the civilian police. The boys started digging a garbage pit and we had a crew building bunks and a latrine box. The boys round a dead French (Arab) soldier in the swamp like area outside out third platoon barracks, plenty ripe!"
November 17, 1942. "The boys have got the latrine nearly finished and in place. The digging of the garbage pit was the highlight of the day. I told the boys to drill a couple of 4 foot deep holes and shoot them with light charges, which would break the shale loose and possibly provide some seepage. I was in the process of showing a major the S-4 of the 168th Infantry who was looking for a place for a ration breakdown around the camp. I heard the boys yell "Fire in the hole." so I told the Major that we should go behind the barracks we were walking by and wait until after the charge went off. The boys were to use some of the explosive, ammonial from a bangalore torpedo. When the charge went off, chunks of stuff flew everywhere! They had overcharged the holes and rocks went through the roofs of six barracks. In the silence that followed the falling of the rocks I heard Sgt. Ulrick yell, "I didn't do it." I found that he was right. He wasn't the one who did the overloading of the hole. I was real angry about this. Now we would have a lot of roofs to fix. It will take over 600 tiles to repair the damage. I'm Camp Commander of this place, Chateau de Neur. My duties are beginning to weigh heavy as I have guard orders and defense plans to put out, as well as air raid plans with assignments."
November 18, 1942. "Today was relatively peaceful. The boys took tile off the roof of a shed next to the main brick factory building to patch up the roofs of the damaged buildings. They seem to have done a nice job. A French officer was here today to see about the damaged roofs. He is in charge of construction in this area. I had quite a time getting everything he said interpreted. Thank goodness we have a boy who understands a little French. The officer wants a list of the material we used. He will be back in a week."
November 19, 1942. "Not much happened today. We were able to give passes and so a few boys went out. Lt. Karge and Lt. Crichton also went out. It has been so long since the men were paid that most of them are broke." From one letter to Wilma: "Our mess sergeant and his cooks made the best pancakes, so when we got our kitchen equipment off the ship our men wanted pancakes, but we didn't have any baking powder. One or two of the men found that the forced issue of tobacco items, toothbrushes, toothpaste and tooth powder contained a certain tooth powder that would take the place of baking powder. So we had a few batches of pancakes until the tooth powder ran out. In a few days we had lots of baking powder, for our sharp-eyed truck drivers hauling food supplies from the docks of Algiers discovered cases of baking powder. After a few days I checked with the mess sergeant and found that we had enough baking powder to last a very long time. So I had a talk with the truck drivers and told them not to bring us any more baking powder as we might soon have more than the depot!"
November 20, 1942. "The boys are working on the showers and another day or so will see them finished. Had an air raid over the city tonight. Our men got out to their places fairly well. The half track crews went to their stations and fired a few rounds, but the planes were so far away it was a waste of ammunition. "
November 21, 1942. "Colonel O'Daniel has directed that we have some practice air raids. We had one at noon. An air raid started about 10 o'clock and lasted until 10:40 P.M. The tracers filled the sky. Better than a 4th of July celebration! A large convoy of ships were in the harbor and we heard that two British divisions were landing. Heard that one hotel was bombed and a dock yesterday. I was called out this afternoon to investigate some bomb duds and a booby trap. Colonel O'Daniel ordered them to be disposed of tomorrow."
November 22, 1942 (Sunday). "Sgt. Byerly and Cpl. Muth with several men went to detonate those duds. The duds proved to be Field artillery 35# shells. The boys did a nice job. The Colonel called me in for a talk. It seems as if some of my boys have been out without a pass and in improper uniform. Another air raid tonight from 7:30 to 9:30. Not too heavy but I think some damage was done. A few duds hit close by. You can hear them whistle through the air. Probably have some more bomb duds to dispose of tomorrow. Hope not." November 23, 1942. "Had several air raids today. The first about 6 A.M. Heard that there was some light damage last night. Also heard that General Ryder, 34th Infantry Division Commander, was scheduled to inspect us and one other area tomorrow. Had an air raid most of the night. There is an antiaircraft battery of heavy guns just up the hill from us now. When they open up, the tile nearly leaves the roofs. What a noisy night!"
November 24, 1942. "Got a telephone call from Combat Team Headquarters at 3 A.M. to go investigate a bomb dud in El Bois. Took three men with me but we couldn't find it. Another big air raid as we hit the city square. After an hour and a half we returned to camp. Spent another hour trying to get more information from C.T. Headquarters." November 25, 1942. "Colonel O'Daniel called this noon and said they were expecting a low-level bombing attack this P.M. It's 8:15 P.M. now and no attack as yet. Lt. Crichton detonated a fountain pen booby trap this afternoon and a dud bomb tonight. We now have to send two officers a day from the camp to take our men into town on pass. I am supposed to inspect the men before they go."
November 29, 1942 (Sunday). "This afternoon I went out on a reconnaissance of the area around here. A report came in that a booby trap had been found. I took Cpl. Muth out with me tonight and blew it. Got an order transferring 31 men into this company. I don' t know just where I'll put them as yet." Word was given on the 1st of December, 1942 that there was a special American aircraft going to fly from North Africa to the U.S.A. and we soldiers could each send one letter home. This was a one time deal and we would be able to tell our families that we were in North Africa. The letter had to be on thin, we called it onion skin paper. The paper had to be folded in a certain way so that part of one side would be used for the address and stamp. No envelopes could be used. These letters had to be delivered to the Army Post Office by the 3rd.
December. I wrote to Wilma saying, "This letter should reach you in just a few days. You will probably get it before any of the other letters I've written from Algeria. I'd 1ike to know just how long it takes this letter to reach you." The letter was postmarked by the Army Post Office on December 3, 1942 and Wilma received it in South Dakota December 13, 1942. In this letter I said, "I've had no mail since the first part of
October." December 3, 1942. "The last several days have been pretty much routine type days, making road reconnaissance and short maneuvers. General O'Daniel (notice he was promoted) has ordered myself and the captain of the 168th Infantry Antitank Company to take a few men and make a reconnaissance of about a 100 miles into the countryside. This would be more like a goodwill excursion. The General has a young Frenchman, a doctor, who speaks excellent English, that will accompany us as interpreter and guide. This trip is scheduled for tomorrow. "
December 4, 1942. "We left our camp a little after 8 A.M. The day was beautiful, warm, bright and sunny. Route was -- Algiers, Boufaut, Blida, Medea, Milcona, Muango then out on to an open flat, really between the mountains. We saw monkeys in the mountains and I took many pictures along the way. There are many vineyards and citrus groves in the valley. The farmers plow with oxen with a wooden plow. We stopped in Milcona where our French interpreter said we should buy some wine as this place was well known for its good wine. We bought some wine and oranges. The mountains around here are beautiful - nearly made me homesick for the Black Hills. The people everywhere were very friendly. We got home about 7:15 P.M."
December 5, 1942 (Saturday). "I had our regular Saturday inspection today. It was pretty good. The boys finished building the brick wall. It looks a little like a snake in places. They poured more concrete and should have the floor in Service Company barracks done now." December 8, 1942. "Just another day. We started to break in an assistant company clerk, a new man by the name of Meaney. General O'Daniel talked to all the officers this afternoon." December 16, 1942. "The past number of days have been pretty much normal activities. We were inspected by General Caffey from the 39th C.T. He found many things wrong and did I ever get my ass burned. How I ever got the job as Camp Commander?! There is so much work to be done around here. The maintenance is a big job alone."
December 20. 1942. "I had two more of my boys picked up for drunkenness today. This is the second time in the last few days this has happened. I don't like it." December 21, 1942. "I went on an 8 1/2 mile march with the company today. Then walked with some of the boys into Elair to a show and back. We've had an air raid every night for the past three or four days. They haven't amounted to much in our area. The A.A. battery on our hill hasn't fired a shot in 3 weeks."
December 25, 1942 (Christmas). "Captains Groves and VanderVeer had dinner with us today. We had beans, dehydrated potatoes, canned sweet potatoes, creamed peas and carrots, bread, peanut butter, jam, ice cream and candied almonds. I furnished the ice cream and candied nuts. I was ordered to furnish five trucks and ten drivers on a mission to haul things, etc. to the front. They should be back in a few days with luck. We officers put on a beer party for the men this afternoon. We had a couple of air raids during the night." I got a letter the day before Christmas written by my wife Wilma on November 8, 1942 in which she said the news was that the British and American forces had invaded North Africa and she said. "I am glad you are not with them." My reply in my letter of December 26, 1942 was. "At the time you wrote your letter I was in a large clump of trees just a few miles off the beach where we landed. To my knowledge we were the first American Engineer unit to land and come within a few hours of being the First American soldiers ashore."
December 26, 1942. "A company of the 112th Engineers got bombed early this morning, about 5 A.M. They had their trucks parked out in the open in a semi-circle. They lost every truck. We were lucky not to get a bomb or two." December 31. 1942. "The last day of the year and very quiet. Have been alerted to move in the next few days." January 2, 1943. "Spent all day preparing to move. We hate to leave this place even to go back to the Battalion. Got orders about midmorning to hold off that plans had been changed. Later they told us to go ahead. The medics and we are to go but not the infantry at this time. We got the half tracks loaded and the new bulldozer. They go by train and Lt. Baker with company headquarters platoon will come by train. The rest of us go by motor convoy." January 3. 1943. "I pulled the convoy out on schedule at 7:45 A.M. At noon we stopped along side of the road next to a large cactus patch to rest and eat our C-rations. In just a few minutes about 50 or more Arab children with mothers came out of the cactus and stood watching us. They had on very dirty ragged clothes and no shoes. They didn't talk, not even between themselves; they just watched us. By the way they looked at us you could tell they were hungry. It got to be too much for Sgt. Byerly - he just handed his can of C-rations to the nearest woman looking at him and walked away." I sent Lt. Lee on ahead to Gran to locate the 109th Engineer Battalion and prepare a place for us. Lt. Lee showed up early in the afternoon with the news that no arrangements had been made for "C" Company as who ever Lee talked to told him they had been told we were not coming. Lee and I then went ahead of the convoy to Gran. We found 34th Division Headquarters location. We got the company settled in to the Battalion camp area about 6 o'clock. The Battalion had none of their vehicles or equipment unloaded as yet by the 5th of January, except a jeep and a weapons carrier.
The Quartermaster had set up showers and they were available to us on January 8th. After we got back from the showers I was told we should get ready to move tomorrow. I was to leave Lt. Baker behind with our kitchen and the cooks to feed their detachment and the Battalion personnel who would move to the new location by train. This included "C" Company except I should have one officer with drivers bring our trucks to the new place in convoy. I delegated this job to Lt. Lee. We loaded on the train at 8:15 A.M. January 9, 1943 at a little town about 15 miles from Gran. These French trains were very different from our American trains, had smaller cars and smaller engines. The train movement was very slow and it took the two little engines all day to get us to our destination of Tlemen. It was after dark when "C" Company got to its campsite which was the race track, about 2 miles out of Tlemen. We are on a plateau about 3000 feet or more above sea level with a mountain range to our south and east. There is another range to our north and west but it is some 15 miles or more away. Tlemen sits at the bottom of the mountains.
The men were busy getting settled in our new camp area. They had to dig a sump hole for kitchen garbage and a trench for our old latrine box that we had hauled from Algiers. No other unit was assigned to our camp area, the race track, so we had it all to ourselves.
January 17, 1943. I wrote that it had been several days since I had written as we had been on the move. Maneuvers, I think. "I can look out and see mountains in the distance in nearly every direction. I'm sitting in a little rough lumber shack that I had the boys build. It's my office and Company Headquarters. We had no place but the wide open windswept spot we are on and you couldn't take a paper out of your message case without having it blow into the next state. January 20th is a beautiful day. The boys are just outside here playing catch. They must think it's spring, while of course it is here, and they are getting the baseball fever."
January 21, 1943. "I'm writing this by flashlight sitting up in my pup tent. It is light enough outside so I could write it by moon light but the wind is blowing again so hard it nearly takes your clothes off. The kitchen fly and latrine screen blew down today and it is useless to try and put them up. The front pole of my pup tent has gone down twice today. I suppose it will go down again tonight . " January 22, 1943. "The battalion took two trucks, two jeeps and all of the weapon carriers away from us today. Something special is going on. The wind blew hard all day, the kitchen fly blew over and the water heater would not stay lit. I got some large rocks and put them down on the sides of my pup tent." January 30, 1943. "I went out to see where our air compressors were working for the French on a mountain road. When I got back I learned we are to move and the air compressors with crews are to be called back here. I sent out the motorcycle riders to bring them in."
February 1. 1943. "We moved out at noon and arrived at Side Bell Abbes at 1700 hours. This is the headquarters of the famous French Foreign Legion. As soon as we started to pull out of our race track camp in Tlemsen, Arabs were allover the place picking up odds and ends of wood and everything that was moveable. I saw our old latrine we built in Algiers on a two wheeled cart going down the road. The next several days were spent in moving toward Tunisia. Much of the time we were in the Atlas Mountains with the roads very winding and narrow. Lt. Lee with his platoon left us February 5th outside Constantine to join the 168th Infantry Regiment. We continued on to Goualma, arriving at 2130 hours. The last few miles were in real mountainous country and we were moving downhill in the dark. It was precarious, but our drivers got us there without coming off the side of the mountains. We pulled out of Goualma at 0930 hours, moved to a bivouac area southeast of Maktar, arriving at 0300 hours. Because we were getting very near enemy held territory, we wanted to arrive at our destination well after dark. We started out again about 5 o'clock in a light rain. I've never seen such slippery roads. We had a truck or two go in the ditch but none were hurt. Crichton's half track hit a bridge and blew a tire. Many trucks from other units turned over and men were hurt. We arrived in our designated bivouac area and got all our vehicles under cover by daylight. We spent the rest of the day, February 7th, getting settled. The weather turned nice and we got Crichton's half track into camp.
The maps of this area showed very few roads but they did show some camel trails which were very difficult to follow on the ground and did not always coincide with the maps. The next few days were spent by the 109th Engineer Officers including Lt. Karge and myself looking for a route that could be used for the withdrawal of the 34th Infantry Division if the Germans attacked our front lines in great strength. This route should lead to a much better defensive position. Captain DeCory found a route. The total distance of this route, I'm guessing, was about 30 miles or more. "C" Company was assigned the center portion of about 8 miles. The biggest construction problem was to get across the wadis. Some of these dry stream beds had high walls that had to be bulldozed down and filled with earth. All the companies of the Battalion worked almost night and day on the road. February 17th we got word the Division was to fall back and the road must be completed that day. The Division started moving that night and we got all of them through our portion of the road and we started following them at 0300 hours. The moving was slow but we finally got out of that traffic choked road of Armored Division and other British units just a little after daylight. I was mighty glad to get off that bumper to bumper double lane traffic before Jerry discovered us and bombed us. We got into a nice bivouac area with trees and cover at a place called Rohia.
February 19, 1943. "The Engineers were placed in Division reserve and are to help organize the new positions with mines and wire. "C" Company spent most of the next few days working on the supply roads. On February 24th we got word that our first platoon and the 168th Infantry unit they were with had been wiped out by the Germans. We think eight of our men who were truck drivers and were well back of the battle lines may be safe. On February 25th I got word that these eight men are safe but the rest of the platoon is missing and no one seems to know where they are. They were in the vicinity of Sidi Sou Sid. February 26th Private John Pine came back to the company. He was with the first platoon. When the Germans struck and over ran the platoon and regimental position it was every man for himself and he hid. After dark came he heard someone softly calling, "engineers over here." He found a Lieutenant and just a few other soldiers. This group walked at night and hid by day and after eight days were able to contact some American Forces. It was sure good to get the truck drivers back with the company. Too bad we couldn't get them all back."
NOTE: I have stopped my narration of my time with "C" Company at this point as it covers the period of time it was separated from the Battalion and the loss of its first platoon to enemy action.