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Civil to Servile

Soldiers lined up outside tents with their belongings on the ground in front of them

Soldiers in transit. From the collection of Irving Mayer.

“How many of you guys had a college education?” barked the tough looking PFC. About a dozen hands went up. “OK, report to the kitchen and let’s see how much you learned about domestic science”.

“Don’t worry about those pants being too tight, buddy. You’ll take off plenty of fat before you’re out of this man’s army.”

“Watch the hook!”

“Yeah, if your IQ is over 110 they send you right out to OCS.”

“You want to get in the Air Corps? Just watch for your name on the bulletin board.”

“You shippin’ out tomorrow too? Whaddya think they’ll put us in?”

“Air Corps, I hope. Those guys really have the life.”

... Yes, that was Fort Dix, New Jersey when, on March 25th, 1943, two battalions of rookies, inveigled into this situation by their friends and neighbors, boarded a train headed south, prepared for anything - except what the army had in store for them. Speculation as to the first phase of their new life was ended when the train arrived at Camp Gordon, near Augusta, Georgia, where it was learned, the 293rd and 294th Combat Engineer Battalions were being activated. The 293rd was commanded by Major John Jannarone.

This history will concern itself with the fate of the 185 men who formed Company “A” of the 293rd. These unfortunates were met by a cadre of 13 non-coms headed by uncouth, domineering 1st Sgt Bob Connelly, who in no time flat got himself hated by nearly 100% of the command. His dictatorial veneer was effected by constantly referring to the men as a bunch of “pig foulers” whom he repeatedly advised to “take a pro” when out “hauling ashes.” The sergeant’s popularity was not increased by his system of picking on the meek, giving them undignified nicknames (like Liver Lip) and keeping them busy on extra details night after night. Connelly’s bravado was not matched by his knowledge, however, even affairs of a military nature. Posing as an expert on the M1 in one of the first classes, he held a rifle up before his awed spectators, removed the trigger housing and stock, and solemnly declared, “No one will ever strip this rifle any further than these three parts.” The men half wished his prediction were true when, a few days later, they were busily engaged in the task of learning all about follower slides, bolts and driving rod springs.

Of course, there were some good non-coms in the cadre too, and everyone soon learned to respect men like S/Sgts Lighty, Price, and Murray for the efficient soldiers and “good guys” that they were.

The company’s commander was Captain Jack B. Robinson, whom the men came to know as a jovial, if inefficient, officer who was willing to leave most of the running of the outfit to his underlings. This meant that the tyrannical top sergeant had full control of introducing the rigors of army life to the motley crew of civilians that made up A Company.

With a “drop from your cots and grab your socks” he fiendishly awoke them every morning, literally booting the slower moving ones out of the barracks onto the still dark company street. After breakfast, for the first few days, they were treated to physical training drills under Sgt Hrabofsky, with close order drill filling up most of the rest of the day. This temporary schedule was altered as soon as the platoon leaders made their appearance, at which time basic training and conditioning got under way in earnest.

Lts Payneck, Norton, and Riddle were the first officers to take over the platoons, but an injury to Lt Riddle’s hand started the first in a long series of changes among the company’s officers. For most of the basic training period, the 1st platoon had Lt. Payneck, the 2nd had Lt. Vaverick and was under the 3rd platoon was under Lt. Norton.

The first phase in transforming the Brooklyn and Gloucester bar flies into combat engineers emphasized physical fitness. To this end, forced marches in the hot Georgia sun were regularly prescribed. On one of the first of these, scheduled for an hour, Lt. Norton insisted that all canteens be emptied before starting out so as to develop water discipline. It would have been a laudable proposal had it not been for an unforeseen turn of events. The lieutenant led the men away from the barracks at a merry pace, but after an hour had passed, instead of arriving back at the starting point, the lieutenant discovered that be had lost his way. An hour’s rough hiking under the southern sun had had its effect with a good proportion of the men already strewn prostrate along the route of march. But it was the hardier ones who really had it tough as they plodded on for four more hours without a drop of water. Mullaly, the crackpot bugler, was repeatedly sent up a tree to pick out familiar landmarks, but succeeded only in leading the party further from its objective. Through a stroke of fate, however, they finally managed to get themselves out of the wilderness just behind PX #6 - only a block or so from the battalion area. There the hand full of men that was left quenched their thirst with free soft drinks as a reward for their stamina.

Thereafter, sick call was always well attended on the mornings of announced hikes.

Bothersome as these forced marches were, they were not a main source of worry. Rather it was subjects like scouting and patrolling, knots and lashes, map reading, demolitions, construction of military bridges, and rifle marksmanship that really had the men harassed. Not that they were imbued with a patriotic fervor that demanded they master this material, But the dire consequences that lay in store for those wayward persons who didn’t absorb their lessons provided an incentive that none could afford to ignore.

During off hours, Capt. Robinson was anxious to beautify the barracks area, which was in an undeveloped section of the camp. At first everyone participated, but soon the task was relegated to punishment duty. When weekend passes became available, a candidate for the privilege had to answer questions and perform simple feats to show he had absorbed the week’s instructions. If he couldn’t tie a bowline or give the formula for the number of TNT blocks required to cut an I-beam, then the only thing for which he became eligible was the aforementioned menial tasks. Of course, a gig on Saturday inspection didn’t even give him the opportunity to apply for a pass.

The diligent ones were rewarded by promotions and pass privileges. Although the metropolis of Augusta was probably better than most southern soldier towns, most of the boys, who didn’t know that southern hospitality was largely a myth, were disappointed in the relatively lifeless, expensive provinciality of the city. Instead, nearby Aiken, S.C. a small winter resort, became the refuge of a large portion of A Company’s fun seekers. Its popularity lay in its peaceful quiet, its excellent golf course, and the fact that Johnny Kolesar, Fred Moore, Joe Carretta, Bearle Donnelly, and several others found the town’s forthcoming young ladies to their liking.

An increasingly smaller, but nonetheless significant segment of the company preferred to remain within the confines of the post for their recreation. The Post Exchanges, theatres, and service clubs offered entertainment enough, providing one was fast enough to get out of the company area before the details were flying. The service club, incidentally was the locale of the 293rd’s first dance, with music provided by the battalion’s own orchestra. It seems incredible In retrospect that the bashful men who stood around the dance floor trying to work up enough courage to ask one of the Georgia peaches for a dance, included the same group that several years later was to lay waste a USO recreation hail in upstate New York. But that is what the army was to do to their personalities.

As the men were being sorted and shifted for their leadership and other abilities, so too the officer personnel were undergoing developmental changes. On the company’s first overnight bivouac, Lt Payneck fell into a camouflaged fox hole and injured his trick knee. His loss was felt deeply by the 1st platooners who had come to respect and admire his confidence, inspiring manner, his knowledge of engineer subjects and ability in handling men. He was replaced by Lt Vinsonhaler, an officer no less capable who soon demonstrated that he too, knew his beans. By the time basic training was over further changes had taken place. Lt Aliapoulos had taken over the 3rd platoon. Lt Vaverick was transferred to another company and Lt Dewey C Holmgren, who had had charge of the 2nd platoon for a short time, replaced Capt Robinson as company commander when the latter assumed the battalion S-4 duties.

The new CO was a strict disciplinarian and inclined to be petty, but no one ever had a word against his fairness. Under him the company successfully completed the MTP tests given by the 2nd Army, and entered the second phase of training.

Starting July 13th, nine day furloughs were authorized for 15% of the command. Meanwhile, training went on, emphasizing operations of the company as a unit within the battalion. Added to the unit during this period were Lts Bogeze, Holtz and Daley in that order. Lt Daley had a particularly hectic time, arriving on the eve of a week long bivouac, just in time to take the 16 mile hike to the camp site on August 2nd. He was not the only one who felt it was a trying day however, as far more than the usual amount had to drop out from heat exhaustion. It was a sadly depleted battalion that began that tactical stay in the Camp Gordon woods.

Training, often under simulated combat conditions continued during daylight hours for the duration of the stay. After dark, outposts were manned while night operations, including the building of a heavy pontoon bridge were undertaken.

Trucks returned the men to the barracks, Saturday night, August 7. Many stayed awake until the wee hours straightening up for the long stay in camp. Next morning chapel services were particularly well attended. It had unexpectedly been announced that the battalion was on the alert for a movement to the Tennessee Maneuver Area.

Furloughs, of course, were immediately cancelled. The men were once again moved out onto the hard ground as pup tents were pitched around the barracks in order to make room for a thorough cleaning. Many moons were to pass before they were once again to enjoy the pleasures of soft garrison life. But that was not foreseen when, after a week of preparation, the two battalion motor convoy pulled out on August 12th, Tennessee bound.

The march took three days with stopovers at Atlanta, Chattanooga, and Murfreesboro. The destination was Lebanon Tennessee, where the battalion’s base camp during the maneuver period was located. The campsite was still occupied or August 15th when the battalion arrived, necessitating a bivouac in the adjoining field for a few days.

293rd’s mission was not long in coming. The battalion was not to be attached to either the Red or Blue forces, but for the remainder of that maneuver period was assigned to general service engineer work. This consisted of repairing the property damage, both private and public, incurred as a result of the maneuvering units. Since most of the jobs required the labor of only a few men, the tasks were portioned out to the platoons, with the squad leaders taking most of the responsibility for the supervision and successful completion of the work.

On the night of August 19th the company returned to Lebanon from their jobs to learn that a shakeup had taken place among the company’s officers. Lt Homgren had been relieved of his command. He, along with Lt Norton, Vaverick, and several others from the battalion was going to an officer’s replacement pool at Shenandoah, Pennsylvania.

The new C.O. was lst Lt George A Rebh, former platoon leader in B Co. where, rumor had it, he was generally regarded as a pretty tough egg. A West Point graduate, he had previously had charge of a platoon in ERTC at Ft Belvoir, Virginia before coming to the 293rd Eng. on May 5th, 1943.

2nd Lt Thomas C Robinson, who had been a platoon leader in “C” Co, also joined the company at that time. Thus, the officer strength lined up as follows: 2nd Lt Holtz, 1st Lt Bogeze, 2nd Lt Robinson and 1st Lt Aliapoulos were the platoon leaders of the Hq, 1st, 2nd, and 3rd platoons respectively. 2nd Lt George Daley remained the company’s personnel officer.

Because the great majority of the jobs were more than an hour’s ride from Lebanon, it was decided, shortly after the change in command took place, to move the company to an area outside Carthage, home of Cordell Hull. Tents were pitched administratively on the side of a beautiful hill overlooking a panorama of rolling green Tennessee beauty.

At the instigation of Lt Rebh, a PX was set up. Calling a meeting of the company, the CO explained that he wanted the men to have every possible convenience. In return, he expected cooperation, and if he received it, there was no reason why the unit couldn’t be just one big happy family. “Treat me like your father,” he said. “If you have any troubles, don’t be afraid to come to me for advice.”

Hardly had the men started their work the next morning when word came that the base camp would have to be moved once again. The comfortable clover field Lt Rebh had selected turned out to be an indignant farmer’s alfalfa patch. The latter’s appeal to the Provost Marshall had landed the CO in the clink. The company was quite peeved at the fate of their commander, some of the more headstrong even suggesting a posse to free him from the law’s evil clutches. Fortunately the Lt wasn’t imprisoned long enough for this sentiment to take root. The stiff fine that the Lt later had to forfeit, however, proved the old adage that “It’s Papa who pays.”

Although located on a less cultivated piece of property, the next bivouac at Gordonville was conveniently situated within a short distance from most of the jobs. The PX was once again put to use quenching the thirst of the hard working engineers, and all was serene within the family – all except for the first touches of a dysentery epidemic that had already wrecked havoc in the rest of the battalion.

A constant source of wonderment was the large number of work tickets completed by the company. The first platoon assumed an early lead in what was thought to be a competition in legitimate effort. But it was soon discovered that the signed slips represented more of a triumph in psychological warfare than in engineering prowess. It wasn’t long before the other platoons caught on to the “heave ho” slogan of Lt Bogeze’s men. Farmers were found to be more interested in the material which the army could give them than in the inferior caliber fence or culvert jobs they could get from former grocers, clerks and shipyard workers. Southern education being what it is, the farmer was often in the dark as to how much was his due. The result was a great saving of government property by the patriotic men of A Co.

The Tennessee natives were for the most part a friendly and generous lot. Chicken, hot biscuits, fresh milk and other civilian offerings came to be almost a regular part of the schedule. The quality of the work was often a silent testimonial (and in direct proportion) to the extent of the hospitality shown. On the rare occasions where the farmer not only insisted on the work being done, but showed no remunerative spirit, the men had an opportunity to train for their future careers in deception. Many a work slip was signed for a fence or bridge that was due to collapse when the first stiff wind came along. But the sturdy accomplishments performed for the kindhearted proved that these versatile men were capable, dyed-in-the-wool combat engineers.

When the need for repairs was exhausted in the vicinity of Gordonville, the company moved on to an area near Grant. The bivouac was on a hill with the CP and kitchen at the top, the platoons pitched down the side, and the latrines at the bottom. Twenty-four hours a day ghostlike apparitions were seen sprinting downhill as though their discharge papers awaited them at the bottom. Dysentery was still on the rampage.

Fall maneuvers were scheduled to start on Sept 14th. Having had enough general service work, the 293rd was ordered to join the Blue forces and participate as combat engineers in the next operation. Accordingly, after a week of work around Grant, A Co packed up and joined the battalion in a wooded area not far from Lebanon. On this trip two of the men were left behind when they hopped out of their trucks, contrary to orders, in Grant. They managed to hoof it to the new area by the following morning where they were rewarded for their stunt by being the first recipient of Lt Rebh’s own version of AM 104 - the pick and shovel.

For the first few days of the problem the company remained in bivouac, doing naught but routine security duty. On the second night Lt Bogeze’s platoon received an alert and was called out to “rebuild” a bridge. This consisted of gathering the necessary materials and carting them to the bridge site in a short enough time to satisfy the umpire. Although there was Borne difficulty about capturing the area first, it turned out that the bridgehead was held by Blue paratroops, so the referee ruled that the bridge had been successfully rebuilt. It was rumored that about an hour later the Reds had bombed it out again but this of course was not the fault of A Company’s efficiency.

The whole company was finally alerted on Sept 17th and moved to an area near Jefferson Springs, an old summer resort. Acting as infantry reserves, the mission was to protect an exposed flank of the Blue forces, holding, in particular, a very critical bridge. Under difficult conditions of constant rain, the men did an admirable job of manning what proved to be an impregnable outpost system. However, Gen Freedenall commented that although the 293rd did an excellent job, they should have been used for engineer tasks rather than for infantry work.

The problem was called on Sept 21st, following which the battalion reassembled in the bivouac outside Lebanon. A formation was held for what was to have been a critique of the operation. Instead, Maj Herndon, the new battalion commander, announced that the outfit was slated to leave Tennessee for the west coast and Desert Training Maneuvers. “Church services will be held at 1000 hours tomorrow morning” he added.

So instead of going into the second problem of the Tennessee maneuvers, the battalion moved down to Camp Forrest for a brief rainy stay while the equipment was prepared for shipment. In spite of the uncomfortably wet grounds, and the tough physical conditioning program instituted by the CO the men enjoyed the short respite here which afforded them a muck needed opportunity to use the showers, laundry, movies and well stocked PX facilities available in the garrison.

The crating and loading was completed on Sept 26, and the battalion was forthwith transported to the railhead at Cowan, Tenn. The forebodings that had gripped everyone on entering Tennessee were repeated in reverse as they traveled to an existence that was to make the past month a vacation in retrospect.

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