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Pine Camp

Aerial view of a parade with cars and audience visible

The unit in Watertown, NY at the end of the war. From the collection of Irving Mayer.

The company reopened its books on August 9th as the men began to trick in from their separation centers. It took several days before things began to get back to what could be considered the norm, but it was obvious from the start that the unit was going to enjoy its best “deal” since its inception. In the first place, the camp was practically empty, containing only a disciplinary barracks and PW enclosure with their attached guards, station complement personnel, and the Army Experimental Station (from whence Heater originated). Secondly, it was located so that the majority of the outfit, whose homes were mostly in the vicinity of New York, could visit their families on a week-end pass. Finally, Watertown proved to be a lively, friendly town, with more than a fair share of comely lasses available to each who was so inclined.

In addition, the outlook on the future conduct of the war was very encouraging. The USSR had entered the fight against the Jap militarists in compliance with an agreement made at Teheran, and were sweeping down through the much-vaunted Japanese troops with astonishing speed. The “golf balls,” as the atomic bombs were affectionately called, had their effect on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. To all intents and purposes, the Japs were through, so although the outfit was tentatively scheduled for Pacific duty around February of 1946, no one took the POM training seriously. Nevertheless, the anticlimatic announcement of Japan’s surrender found the 406 men full of enough joyful surprise to participate to their utmost in Watertown’s victory celebration. After a night of revelry accepting the kisses, drinks and other forms of profferred thanks by the local citizenry, the entire company marched in the town’s official parade on August 15th. Appearing in battle regalia, and wearing the fatigued looks that inevitably accompany the morning after, the men really looked their part of “combat” engineers. Their perfectly coordinated marching was, of course, the outstanding feature of the day’s celebrations. To make it a real holiday, 48-hour passes were granted to the entire command.

With the ending of the war, only two problems were left to bother the men: the questions of passes, and discharges. The former was solved when the outfit came under the control of Col. “Haircuts” Hcrarey (?) whose liberality on pass privileges was matched only by his strictness on the matter of soldierly appearance. The policy on discharges was, of course, set by the War Department, but the colonel promised he would do his best to see to it that those who were eligible would get out promptly. In the meantime, he announced amid groans, jeers and much agitation, the WD still had the organization scheduled to go to the Pacific. POM training was to continue.

While Washington pondered whether or not to let 23rd know that the war had ended, a small revolt was stewing inside the unit’s hierarchy. An inspecting general was sent up from 2nd Army Headquarters to investigate charges that the morale of the outfit had been very bad overseas. Enlisted men from all the component units were picked up at random to testify behind closed doors. Some of the 406th, notably non-coms, claimed that the morale of the combat engineers was always the best in the Headquarters. Others, like Bober, Marcus, Cardiello, to mention a few, remember their experiences with the pick and shovel, not to mention the “bread and butter” deals, with enough rancor and bitterness left to condemn their CO. Whatever it was that the IG discovered, the result was that Col. Reeder was relieved of his command, and Lt. Col. Snee given his post. As for the 406th, the men were advised by Capt. Rebh not to take up the time of any future IG’s by volunteering information about which he was not concerned.

Apparently word did finally reach 23rd that the war was officially over, for the POM training was suddenly dropped and the more enjoyable peacetime schedule taken up. What with Wednesdays and weekends free, not to mention three-day passes, a suggestion was seriously made in the post paper to give everyone furloughs until their discharges were ready. Not that life in the environs of Watertown wasn’t just as good. It was just a question of saving the government some money.

The worry about going to Japan as an occupation force ended as suddenly as it had started. Points had been lowered to include those with ASR scores of 80 or over, and at the same time they were recomputed as of Sept. 2. This put a considerable portion of 23rd Hq in the group eligible for immediate discharge. In addition, more men had been lost under the over-38 clause. A host of replacements had been brought into the outfit, but it didn’t alter what everyone had now come to expect was inevitable. Its mission complete, the unit was ready to disband. Inactivation was to become effective on Sept. 15.

This latest turn of events, among other things, made it imperative that the company give a farewell party in order to clear the company funds from the books. Following the lead of the 603rd companies, the committee arranged to have the quiet affair of the USO recreation hall. A promise was given by Sgt. Cattani that the party would be very orderly with nothing stronger than beer consumed. Despite these assurances, however, Monday evening, Sept. 10th will be remembered as a red letter occasion in the history of Watertown USO.

The decorating committee had done a fine job on the hall. Gay, colorful streamers were draped around the walls, while on each table there stood at least one bottle of a richly colored liquid which for want of a better name was said to be whiskey. Some of the usual conglomoration of “USO girls” were present, but for the most part they were supplanted by “imported stuff” from the dredges of Watertown society. The habitues of Gallo’s, the Hub, and especially the Commercial Hotel probably accepted the 406th invitations, thinking they would at least momentarily regain their respectability.

It was not long before Cattani’s “beer” had its effect. To say the party got wild would be a gross understatement. Even guys like Marty Cogan and Norm Poris, who literally “never touched the stuff” were soon plastered. The orchestra played under constant threat from flying bottles. The plaintive wails from the young clarinetist were particularly noticeable as his instrument and staring eyes followed the carting-off of this or that body. Toward midnight the USO representative dropped around to see how things were going. After suffering several indignities from some of the inebriated personnel, she stayed only long enough to accept Sgt. Cattani’s deepest apologies and spit back at him with more venom than the words could possibly convey, “Never again.”

For some unexplained reason, the USO recreation hall was henceforth dubbed, “The bucket of blood.” Respectable girls, before accepting a date from a GI, thereafter always asked first, “You’re not from the 406th, are you?” Conversations about the 45th Inf Div which had once been at Pine Camp, no longer used such opprobrious terms as “rough” or “ungentlemanly.” These were adjectives solely reserved for Capt. Rebh’s now thoroughly discredited combat engineers.

Every man who had been with the original outfit and had one child had 80 points, enough to be discharged. Pine Camp was just turning itself into a separation point, and these lucky boys were to be the camp’s first discharges. Capt. Rebh bade these men good bye on Friday Sept 14th, amid much hand shaking and well wishing. Sgt. Sauro embarrassed everyone and won the admiration of a few by living up to his promise that he wouldn’t shake hands with “that man” in public. Amongst the rest of the company, there was the usual sad feeling when good friends meet the parting of the ways. In addition there was no little remorse among those who felt that they too could have been getting out had they taken advantage of all opportunities as these fathers had.

That afternoon and evening there was a mass exodus. The news had leaked out that the remainder of the company was scheduled to skip out on Tuesday for Camp Shelby, Miss. Those able to get passes wanted to get home for what they knew would be their last visit for some time. Those unable to get passes, or too impatient to wait for one, took off in the largest AWOL movement the outfit had ever seen. Since they knew they were to ship out on the 18th, most of them figured there wouldn’t be enough time left for punishment to be meted out.

But of course, they reconed without Capt. Rebh, who didn’t want to see the company break up without having something special with which to remember him. About 30 men had gone AWOL but only 20 were reported in time for the big show. This consisted of a mass court martial where the sentences were adjudged by young Lt. Reeder who showed as much sympathy and understanding as young West Pointers generally do on these occasions. Except in one or two special cases, the men were sentenced to 10 days hard labor without confinement for each day AWOL, plus a fine of 2/3 pay. The special cases added days of hard labor, or confinement, but dropped the fine. None of this hard labor was ever actually performed, so that a few of the victims were still able to say, “he never made me dig.”

Having officially uttered its last gasp on the 15th, the company held an inauspicious post mortem just before the largest remnant was being patched together for shipment to the 28th Inf Div and eventual discharge. In a final farewell address, the C.O. briefly recounted the outfit’s short but brilliant career. Tribute was paid to the non-coms, amid loud snickers, and the men too were complimented on their good jobs “right down to Gallucci and Neacosia.” The future tax payers were assured that they had taught the Captain much about handling men, and that any future companies which he might command would be treated as the 406th had shown him men should be treated (loud cheers). In spite of themselves, the men shared the captain’s feelings of loss, for the friendships and rich experiences that two and a half years together had produced, was something no one could take away.

Thus ended the storybook tale of the 406th Engineer Combat Company Special. More special than combat, it’s true, but engineers of a democratic nation’s great trickery that brought about a speedier, less costly victory over the haughty supermen.


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