CAMP FORREST, TENNESSEE
In spite of all the pre-arrangements, the Tequila and Cokes did not last the duration of the trip. Thus it was with a feeling of relief from boredom mixed with the usual excitement that accompanies the start of new ventures that the company detrained at 0700 hours January 30th in Tullahoma, Tennessee. The first tip off of what lay in store for them came when the boys noticed that the trucks which transported them to camp belonged to the 603rd Camouflage Engineer Battalion. In fact, it appeared from the outset that this organization would be in direct control of A Company. The mission as it was first explained seemed to be entirely centered around camouflage work. Familiarization courses on the art of deception were given as the first part of the company’s introduction to its new assignment.
It was not until many months later the complete background of the formation of 23rd Hq Sp Trs became known to the men. Following the success of the famed British deception unit in Africa, the US Army decided to create a similar organization for use in the impending campaigns in Europe and Asia. However, it was not merely a camouflage outfit with dummy equipment, but included some of the best minds in the Army on Infantry, Tank and Artillery tactics who were to determine the best strategic deployment of the unit. The deception was to be aided by the inclusion of a company of some of the best radio operators in the country, as well as a specially trained company of sonic deceptors who joined the headquarters in England. The combat engineers were originally planned to have been used as the outfit’s sole organic security force – the only real soldiers in the organization, as it were. However, as it later developed through the use of special efforts, they too became an important cog in the deception set-up.
Unfortunately, very little of this Big Picture was understood in the early days at Camp Forrest. The 603rd was still experimenting with various types of material to use for the dummy equipment. The battalion’s pet plan at that time was to use collapsible items made of burlap and wood. Lt Col Fitz, the battalion commander, assumed that the combat engineers had been sent into the organization expressly for the purpose of easing the tasks of the camoufleurs, and immediately set then to work in the “factory” dyeing the burlap, and sewing and nailing the equipment into shape. The proposal was to have the men work in three shifts, eight hours on and 16 hours off. It sounded like a good deal to the men, but 23d Hq felt that since the company was going to be in charge of the outfit’s security, they should also spend considerable time on combat infantry tactics. In addition Capt Rebh felt that the high physical standards that were attained in the desert should be maintained by daily calisthenics topped off by a run over the post obstacle course. As a result the physical endurance of the men was strained to almost unbearable proportions.
As though this were not enough to try the patience of even the most complacent, Col Reeder, the commanding officer, announced that the company’s first objective was to get the “sand out of its ears”. The initial feelings of joy at the comforts of garrison life from which they had been divorced for more than six months, soon gave way to griping as the meticulous cleanings for daily barracks inspections became routine. Saturday inspections were more “chicken” than any the 293rd had ever been through, with matters made more harrowing by a special ruling of Capt Rebh’s placing full responsibility on the non-coms. In other words, a squad sergeant could be restricted if any of his men had a dirty rifle. This even resulted in one sergeant handing in his stripes so that he could get more passes to see his wife. But for the most part, the men continued to be far behind the non-coms in receiving privileges.
In spite of the fact that A Company had just come from the desert, the men proved that even in the unaccustomed role of garrison soldiers, they were far better fit than the other units of the headquarters. Week after week, the motor pool, the kitchen, the barracks, the weapons and the personnel of the combat engineers were a shining example of good soldiering but the penalties that were inflicted because of the deficiencies of the other outfits were also applied to the Company A. The kitchen of the 603rd, for example, showed on one of the first bivouacs, that it was unprepared for field cooking. Although the engineers had been through six months of field range and mess gear eating, they too were required to sit outside their mess hall, and demonstrate that they knew how to use their tin plates. Small wonder that the talk of overseas duty began to be regarded with hopeful anticipation.
Social life in Tullahoma followed the pattern of most southern soldier towns. The USO’s attracted a few. Many had their wives in town for their last taste of stateside marital bliss. The majority either wolfed around town or enjoyed the camp’s varied facilities for relaxation. Among the latter was the sports arena, where the combat engineer’s entry in the basketball tournament failed to make much headway. The company’s representatives in boxing came off a little better, with Punchy Feldman and Bobby Piazza gaining the right to appear in the Golden Gloves tournament in Nashville. Though each put up a gallant fight, neither was successful in the “big time.”
During March and the early part of April several bivouacs were held to practice the setting up of dummy installations, particularly at night, as well as problems concerning bivouac security and withdrawal. On all of these the results were very satisfactory. The best performance, however, was on the Post “defense against air attack” test. The company received the highest score in the history of the camp on this difficult test which involved recognition of enemy and friendly planes and a tactical road march and bivouac stressing anti-aircraft maneuvers.
On April 7th at 2400 hours Company “A” was transferred back to the 293rd Engineer (C) Bn - minus its personnel and equipment. At the same time the 406th Engineer Combat Company was activated, and the men and material from Co “A” duly assigned per Paragraph 1, General Order #5, 23d Hq & Hq Det. Sp. Trs. A week later the company’s name was redesignated as the 406th Engineer Combat Company Special, 23d Hq. Sp Trs.
The stay at Camp Forrest had provided enough time to satisfy the remaining requirements for overseas movement. The platoon combat proficiency tests were passed, and each man in the company participated in an attack on a dummy Nazi village. Further experience with combat weapons was garnered on these courses, as well as on the post rifle and grenade ranges. After the sifting out of the weaklings on the desert and the added physical conditioning which was received here, the POM medicals were passed in a breeze. No doubt about it this time, the boat was really rocking.
After dark on the night of April 20th the company boarded a train headed for POE. Two days later, after a roundabout trip which had the men bewildered as to their destination, the five officers and 171 enlisted men that now comprised the 406th engineers arrived at Camp Kilmer, New Jersey. Not at all phased by the incessant Jersey rain, a wave of excitement was felt throughout the outfit. By far the biggest proportion of the men were from the environs of New York and Philadelphia. For once in their army careers they were within overnight pass distance of their homes.
Certain things, however, were on the order of the day for Camp Kilmer, and other things, were not. Phoning, for example, was strictly verbotten. Passes were promised, but before they could be granted, a number of requirements had to be met first. The new type gas mask was issued and tested in a gas chamber. Training in loading trains, in abandoning ship, and living on a lifeboat was given. Final physical and clothing checks were undergone. When everyone had had their looking over (or, as Abe Gropper felt, been overlooked) passes were available - to 50% of the command at a time. The non-coms were first, but everybody came in for at least two passes, not to mention the unauthorized visits that no small few were able to make.
On April 29th passes were stopped. The outfit was on the alert. Not that some of the more alert members of the company didn’t take their chance on one last American AWOL, but for the most part that ended the pleasant side of the stay at Camp Kilmer. Three miscreants were apprehended on their way through the fence surrounding the camp. Months later, one of them, who insisted on a court-martial, was acquitted on the grounds that he was only investigating the possibilities of breaking the rules, but since he hadn’t actually left the camp, he had not infracted any regulations.
On the night of May 2nd the train-loading classes were put to use as the men crowded into the cars with all their gear for the short trip to Hoboken, from whence a ferry was taken to the dock. At 2100 hours the U.S. Army transport #592, the Henry Gibbons, was boarded.