CAMP PILOT KNOB APO 184 Los Angeles Calif.
After 5 days rolling across the Country with frequent stops at that popular station “Derail”, the train, on the verge of melting came to a halt at the army railhead near Yuma, Arizona. Out onto the burning sands and into the glaring sun stepped the 293rd Engineers. No announcement was necessary to tell the men that they were now in the desert.
The sunken feelings which greeted the first sight of the western waste land were as nothing compared to the dismay which was in evidence when, a few hours later, trucks brought the men to “camp”. Just inside the California border, some 16 miles from Yuma, this new base, Camp Pilot Knob, was merely a vast desolate expanse of sand and sage brush with the namesake mountain (Pilot Knob) rising dolefully in the background. Wooden frames that were to serve as foundations for kitchen tents were the only evidences that other humans had been in the vicinity before. After partaking of their first sand flavored, dehydrated meal, and witnessing their first desert sunset, the men stretched out on cots beneath a sky full of stars, afraid to stir in the night air lest the movement attract the attention of some sidewinder or diamond back that they had been warned were lurking everywhere.
The next day the process of converting the area into a bona fide camp began. The brush was cleared away and enough of the gullies leveled to put up pyramidal tents. Cleanliness however, became a thing of the past once the baked crust of the earth was broken and the powdery sand exposed to the elements. Even when the wind wasn’t blowing it around requiring the use of gas masks, the dust still penetrated rifles, equipment, and personnel to a most exasperating degree.
A training program consisting of an intensive review of basic combat engineer subjects was followed with certain allowances for the new climate. Water discipline, snake bite treatment and finding directions from the stars were, for example, given added emphasis. Afternoons were spent swimming in the All-American canal near the Mexican border until weather and maneuvers put an end to the practice late in October.
Few people took advantage of the pass opportunities during the week, since the entertainment facilities of Yuma were expensive, uninteresting and limited by a 2300 bed check. The battalion PX and movies tended to attract all but the married men whose wives were in town or the big time operators who weren’t bothered by the above mentioned limitations. On weekends, though, the bull fights and gay tequila filled night life of Mexicali, just over the border, proved immensely popular. 48 hour passes were also given to El Centro, a somewhat larger, if not more interesting town than Yuma. The best recreational offering woe the three or five day passes to Los Angeles, which a select few were lucky enough to get before their discontinuance on Nov 3rd when furloughs were resumed.
On Oct 13th, Lt Daley, with one squad from the second platoon, two cooks, and the heavy equipment section of H&S and A Companies, left to repair the roads in the maneuver area near Palo Verde. The group camped in a field along the bank of the Colorado River, living an idyllic life of fishing and canoeing when the day’s work was done. One evening, one of the guards noticed a boat, seemingly unoccupied drifting aimlessly down the river. Summoning aid, he proceeded to pull it into shore, and was greatly surprised to find the body of a pretty young girl sprawled out in the bottom. Investigation revealed that she was alive, so artificial respiration was promptly administered, with Lt Daley doing the pumping. It soon became obvious that a fluid far more volatile than water had caused the unconsciousness of the lass. The only thing that had been drowned was her sorrow. The situation became further complicated by the entrance of the young lady’s father upon the scene, preventing any further repair of the damages by the anxious engineers.
From Oct 23rd until the end of the month the company participated in its first problem of desert maneuvers in the vicinity of Ogilby, California. The chief mission was road repair work. But, as reserves, the men got their share of combat conditions as well. Digging a slit trench three feet deep and the length of one’s body became Standard Operating Procedure upon entering any area during the course of the operation. If the first attempt did not meet with Lt Rebh’s measuring tape approval, a post-graduate course in desert excavation was inevitably prescribed.
When the problem ended, the company moved out to a bivouac near Blaisdell, Arizona. Under Lt Holtz’s direction a firing range had been built there with A Company’s men performing a major part of the labor. The result, all agreed, was a range far superior to any that the battalion had used before. After the finishing touches were put on the work, preliminary firing from 200 and 300 yards was held from November 3rd to November 7th.
From Blaisdell the company moved to a bridge head at the Imperial Dam to get some intensive training with pontoon bridges. This was supplemented on November 9th with practice on the construction of treadway bridges at Laguna Dam. Road repair work took up the remainder of the company’s time until November 19th, the start of the 2nd maneuver problem.
Meanwhile the officer personnel had undergone two more changes. Lt Holtz had been transferred to H&S Co, leaving the position of motor officer unfilled, and Lt Bogeze was transferred to the Army Air Force. His platoon was turned over to Lt Daley.
The company started the first phase of the new maneuver in the vicinity of Wiley Wells, Cal., later proceeding toward Palen Pass. The missions included road repair, laying mine fields and protecting supply lines. There was a two day rest on November 28th for the other troops; but, for the combat engineers it just meant more road repairs.
The second phase involved more “combat”. On December 6th, the battalion relieved the 315th Engineers of the 90th Division, moving out by foot. From that time until the end of the problem on December 10th the company was constantly on the move. The men participated in several attacks, manned an exposed flank, laid and removed mine fields, and in general encountered more privations and hardships than they were ever to experience in fourteen months overseas.
Upon the return to Pilot Knob the long awaited cadre to form the 283rd Engr was finally sent out. Fourteen enlisted men were sent from A Co including 1st Sgt Connolly. He was succeeded by Sgt Toth who had been under- studying the job for several weeks. Sgt Brodbeck became the new first platoon leader, and Sgt Johnson replaced the departing Sgt Lighty as motor sergeant. Sgt Price and Sgt Tuttle remained in charge of the second and third platoons respectively.
Around this time it was discovered that the 293rd Engineers was a “hot” organization. AW 28 had been read. Men who tried to get transferred to the Air Corps or to ASTP found that they were frozen. In a battalion formation after the maneuvers, Major Herndon finally clarified the situation by announcing that everyone might just as well write home that they were on the way overseas since the outfit was definitely POE bound. Lest there were any further doubts, the next month was spent satisfying the army’s POM requirements.
Infiltration, transition and combat proficiency courses were set up on the desert wastes behind Pilot Knob. Practically the whole company qualified with the M1 on course A out at Blaisdell when it was fired for record on December 14th. Thereafter Lt Rebh devoted much time to combat tactics and platoon attacks developing in the men a strong reliance on the importance of fire and movement. Considerable emphasis was also placed on demolition work, with many long hours practical study put in, blowing towers of sand into the desert sky.
The purely physical requirements for overseas movement such as the 25 mile hike, the TD 40 exercises and the medical examinations presented no problem to Company A. Although a few were transferred out as unfit for overseas duty, the majority of the men were then in such fine shape that they easily could have matched a similar group of paratroops or rangers in feats of endurance.
To replace those who hadn’t made the grade, the company received fourteen overseas volunteers on Dec 21st, mostly from the 80th, 95th and 104th Divisions. At the same time 2nd Lt John Kelker was assigned and joined, bringing the company’s officer strength up to the authorized strength of five.
Included in the POM training were familiarization lessons on the use of modern combat engineer weapons. The knowledge was put to immediate use on January 2, 1944 when Lt Robinson took 12 EM to the Los Angeles Coliseum to take part in the “This is the Army” show, demonstrating the flame thrower, pole charges and other newly learned techniques. Through fate’s ironic sense of humor, these experts were destined to go through the rest of the war without so much as seeing any of this equipment again.
Around the middle of January a peculiar request was received by the battalion. Army Ground Forces wanted the best company to be prepared for shipment to Camp Forrest, Tennessee for a special mission. Battalion surgeon, Capt Kaplan, attested that A Company was far and away in the best shape. The record on maneuvers and the various ranges likewise showed that out of this admittedly crack battalion it was Lt Rebh’s company that stood cut as the unit best prepared for combat. As a result of these findings, two things happened. Lt Rebh was promoted to Captain on Jan 15th, and A Company was selected for the special training at Camp Forrest.
Speculation was high as to the nature of the company’s future work. It was known that Camp Forrest operated a mine school, which led many to conclude that that would be the subject of the special training. Capt Rebh expressed the opinion that Col Jannerone (the battalion’s former commander who was at that time working in 2nd Army Hq at Memphis) had wanted A Company as a “show” outfit to demonstrate what a well trained combat engineer company should be like. Almost all agreed that the company would meet the rest of the battalion in time to catch the boat.
Since the movement was to be made alone, Capt Rebh unofficially sanctioned stocking up with liquid preparations for the trip. With straight faces, the men nodded agreement when the train commander asked, “It’s understood of course that there is to be no drinking of liquor on this movement.” However, strange clinking and gurgling sounds were plainly audible from most of the barracks bags as the men climbed on board the train at 1830 hours, January 26th. At 1905 hours, Yuma and the 293rd became a part of the past. Ahead lay a mission that was to fool every one of the company speculators — and deceive the whole German General Staff to boot.