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VE Day

Five men at a table eating under a 406 sign

The 406 in Luxembourg. From the collection of Irving Mayer.

Pass privileges were extended to include 24-hour sojourns in familiar Luxembourg City, and three-day passes in the Esch recreation area. Through some oversight even privates were sent on these. Thus it was that quite a large proportion of the company was able to participate in a grandiose style, the celebrations that started on May 7 and continued until the whole world had had their official announcements that VE day had at least arrived. In London were Dave Goetz and Briston Kid Kolesar. Punchy Feldman and Harry Siegal were among the lucky ones in gay Paree, while the sight of the illuminated cross on top of the Luxembourg cathedral was witnessed by droves of Schnapps-happy 406 men. Nor were those who remained on the job in Wittlich devoid of the means to increase joy. A liquor ration of the Wehrmacht’s finest plus the vodka and vino of the DP’s was accessible and consumed in nightly carousals by way of appreciation for the curtain to the final act of the European phase of the war.

If VE day was good news, there was even more cause for rejoicing in the news that followed. A telegram had been received from General Marshall ordering 23rd Hq and its allied units back to the States for redeployment. Although quite a few felt they would be better off staying on in Europe until the end of the Japanese war, the general opinion was that it would be better to get home first, after which a lot might happen before embarking for the Pacific. Of course, everyone knew that their individual thoughts on the matter would have no effect on the final outcome and, accordingly, adjusted themselves to the not-unhappy prospect of seeing their homes again soon. The arrival of an artillery battalion, new to the ETO, to relieve them of their duty at the camp added to the impression that the long voyage home was imminent, perhaps only a week or two away.

Instead of providing relief, however, the new unit succeeded in supplying the men with more work and more headaches. Their major was an admirer of Nazi control methods to an extent that even Capt. Rebh felt was excessive. As though guards around the Russians and Poles weren’t enough, he decided the camp needed to be enclosed in barbed wire. Naturally his own men were too busy for the task, so he called on the combat engineers. The job was tedious enough in the hot May sun, but this discomfort was as nothing compared to enduring the blazing eyes of the watching DP’s who couldn’t understand how the Americans, their friends, their allies, their Liberators could treat them in such a dastardly fashion. Of course all the concertina in the world wouldn’t keep the Russkies in if they wanted to get out, and the main effect of the barbed wire served merely to increase this desire.

To punish any miscreants who might disobey the edicts of the new commander, Cpl. Capizzi was detailed to build a barbed wire enclosure to serve as a stockade. Capizzi and his men did such a fine job that when a visiting one-star stopped by on a routine inspection and called him over, Pat naturally assumed it was for a compliment. But no, this representative of the “chicken” XXIII Corps merely wanted to reprimand the boys for working in the sweltering heat without their OD shirts on. Now that the fighting was over, utility and efficiency were no longer rewarded, and the Army was once again returning to its role as a haven for frustrated dictators.

Far from being relieved by the artillery boys, in the final analysis, the 406th had to relieve them, since they moved from Wittlich first. But, at long last, an infantry unit came in to take over the center, and many men in the company thought they could already taste the salty sea air. There were some misgivings about leaving the comforable quarters with that nice wooded hill at the end of the street where (t’is said) lovely maedschen congregated daily to await those cads, the fraternizers. Sgt. Price, when short of men for details, had often contemplated having a roll call in the woods, but refrained lest he intrude on the pleasures of the wrong people. The more principled men, as elsewhere in the American army, had nothing to do with these daughters of the Führer, preferring instead their fine evenings at the camp in the company of some delightful Polish wench (usually while 10 or more of her roommates were present). The only problem involved there was getting past the guard. As Sgt. Terry could testify, this was not always an easy task, particularly when a conscientious man like Hank (the lamp) Boner was on the post, and remembering unanswered please for seconds, remained adamant in his “non pasarán.”

So with mixed emotions, the men hopped onto their trucks and left Wittlich on May 21 at 1030 to join the rest of the outfit. Surprise was mingled with disappointment when, some 2 ½ hours later, the trucks pulled into an open field somewhere in the wilderness between Idar-Oberstein and Baumholder. For some unexplained reason, the place was afterward known as Chicken Ship Hill. Althought Wolarsky overheard Col. Reeder tell Lt. Aliopoulos to expect a three-week stay, nobody seriously considered the possibility that the bivouac would last more than a few days. But when the pyramidal tents arrived a few nights later, and incidentally spoiled Errol Flynn’s Burma victory for the 406 men who had to work late putting them up, it appeared as though the gentlemen from 23rd Headquarters were exercising a lowly type of deception. While they (including Poris and Taylor who had been acting as the Colonel’s personal bodyguards for the past months) were quartered like kings in Oberstein, the rest of the outfits were forced to live in abject misery under the pretense that such an area was necessary to prepare for the POE.

An example of the sort of existence that was followed here can be understood by the order to have all equipment in the duffle bag, this necessitating the job of packing and unpacking every night merely to change clothes. Everything had to be uniform, of course, and a rugged training schedule was instituted, including hikes to the nearby Baumholder DP camp. But the formal retreat at 1700 didn’t end the day, since Capt. Rebh had some ideas of his own about making the area a suitable place in which to live. Gravel paths, was pits, basin racks, clothes lines, outhouses, flagpoles, baseball diamonds, volleyball fields, even an archway over the entrance with 406th Engr cut in big pine figures, were all accomplishments which the men did on their own time. On Sundays, the ones who had played such a large part in putting the Americans on the other side of the Rhine, finally had an opportunity to see what the East bank looked like themselves. The trip was through beautiful and historic terrain, but over damaged roads in tired two and a halfs. After the first week, there were few who volunteered to take advantage of this recreational facility and, accordingly, the Captain, in a true Rebhian maneuver, ordered the trucks filled even though it meant forcing some men to absorb the sightseeing tour.

Naturally in this sort of atmosphere, the inspections were as picayune as the inspecting officer could make them. It must be said for the Colonel that he got up early enough to take reveille on his inspecting tours. Although for the most part, the 406th was found to be up to its usual par, the Col. Did find a few men needing haircuts. This resulted in an order for all men to get short GI haircuts. A deadline was set by which time everyone had to be scalped. There was not enough time for Pvt. Wilczinski to take care of everyone, so a few other capable coiffeurs were ringed in to assist him. One of these did such a complete job of improving his client’s appearance, notably Cardiello, Orloff and Kerstein, that they feared their families wouldn’t recognize them when they got home. Had it not been for the fact that said barber was prone to mal de mer, he no doubt would have been thrown to the fishes on the trip home. As it was, the above-mentioned trio refrained from tossing him overboard only because they felt it would be doing him a great favor to take him out of his seasick misery.

True to Wolarsky’s prediction, at the end of three weeks the outfit was finally set to move to the port. Censorship had been lifted (though not as to the nature of our organization, of course) and Capt. Rebh had announced that it was all right to write home that 30 day furloughs would probably begin on or about July 4th. The TAT crates had all been made. Showdown inspections had begun, and new equipment, including the snappy ETO jackets, had been issued. AW 28 had been read twice, and it was now official that the organization was under movement orders.

Brodbeck, Tuttle, Orsino, Hardman and a few others had everyone worried lest they miss the boat with their last-minute ailments. Lt. Aliapoulos was lost for good on 28 May when he took over Co. “D”, 603rd Engrs. In return, the company picked up Lt. Mason and Andrews to complete the hitherto depleted officer staff.

The afternoon of June 13, Lt. Daley’s impeccable guides received their last ETO briefing. Early the next morning, they were off with their yellow and black arrows followed by the remainder of the company who took their final leave of the Idar-Oberstein rest camp at 0830.

The first leg of the trip to the LeHavre POE came to a halt at 1501 hours in Bivouac Area #1 Montmedy, France. Here, while PW’s fed them sumptuous meals, the men were told to expect better areas as they neared the port. Also, that outfits seldom stayed at port for more than 48 hours. Perhaps all the good things that were heard there is the reason it is remembered as the best of the redeployment transit areas. Actually rumors, meals, and other facilities got progressively worse in the next two areas. The second stopover was in Soissons, France, which was reached at 1430 hours on June 15th. Although the men had to pitch their own tents, and the food was just shy of inedible, there was a situation outside this camp which made many of the men happy that the outfit didn’t proceed to more comfortable quarters.

Less than a hundred miles from Paris, the area was on the outskirts of a fairly large town. Having found that troops being redeployed from Germany generally had far more souvenirs than the Army permitted them to retain, practically the entire population of Soissons gathered nightly around the perimeter of the bivouac, to bargain for the spoils of war. Anything from radios to lace panties was on sale here in what was probably one of the world’s biggest open black marketplaces. The camp guards, in attempts to break it up, even resorted to firing their weapons over the crowd, but to no avail. The fabulous prices were too much for the GI’s to resist, and the dire need for the goods was too much for the French to forget about. Needless to say, many 406th duffle bags became lighter here, while the poker, dice and blackjack stakes reached new highs.

The following morning the guides were almost forced to leave without Lt. Daley. He hd gone along with Capt. Rebh and Lt. Mason to Paris, where the trio took their last fling at La Vie European. They returned just in time to join the convoy up to[…] at 0800 hours. It moved out on schedule, arriving in Camp Twenty Grand, Duclair, France at 1630 hours, June 16th.

The formalities of turning in equipment, signing affidavits, custom sheets and the like, took not 48 hours, but 130 ½ hours. On pins and needles the entire time, no one really appreciated the camp until they were finally loaded, cattle fashion on the big trailers that were to take them to the boat. Their last European motor convoy started at 0300 hours on June 22 and ended at the Le Havre docks, 51 miles away, at 0600. This weird shell of a once great port, seen in the half gray of that dusky summer dawn, reminded the men that though the war in Europe was “fini” its scars might never be erased.

At 0710 hours the company boarded the USS General Ernst, an Navy transport which seemed to be about the same size as the Henry Gibbons. A TD battalion was already on board when 23rd Hq arrived. Several RAMP’s (freed American PW’s), two American Red Cross girls and a general construction engineer regiment were added to the passenger list before the anchor was finally weighed at 1907 hours the next day.

Traveling alone, without blackouts and submarine alerts, the return voyage was quite a contrast to the company’s first crossing of the Atlantic. Shows at night were sparked by the songs and wit of Blarney’s favorite funny men, Art Kane, Kingfish Levinsky & Co. not to mention Capt. Fox and his quiz kids. Auctions permitted the navy men to share in the victor’s spoils when 50¢ knives and $2 cameras were sold for as little as $50 and $100. And when the ship finally go out of the Arctic Circle and perpetual daylight, movies were also shown on the upper deck. Though there was no gun crew ruse on this ship, the 406 men nevertheless had an opportunity to demonstrate their line bucking prowess in obtaining more than their share of the ship’s fountain’s wares.

The ship’s newspaper gave a history of one of the units on board each day. Last, but far from least, was the glowing tribute which official historian Capt. Fox wrote, keynoting the type of lies, ambiguities and deliberate misconceptions that it would be permissible to spread while on furlough. Enough of these were reprinted so that most of the men had printed statement to pull out should any civilian bar fly doubt their stories of combat.

July 2nd was a day that not many of the organization will be apt to forget. Not long after sunrise, Virginia Beach was sighted, looking more beautiful than the most flattering tourist brochure could have made it. Ages later the ship docked at Newport News, where pretty Transportation Corps girls were waiting to supervise the unloading. With amazing and gratifying efficiency, the men were put on board a train which traveled 4 miles to Camp Patric Henry, the Hampton Roads PE. Here an officer issued precise instructions over a loudspeaker, and promised a happy, short stay at the camp. His word was kept by the clockwork fashion in which the men were handled. In spite of the astronomical figures of the temperature, the men were treated to the finest meal the army had ever put forward. The cooler khaki clothes were promptly issued. Telephone service, well stocked PX’s, and up to date movies were all available. But best of all, everyone was on the way to his separation centers by the next day. From there, of course the long awaited 30-day recuperation furloughs were issued.

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