Larry Jones – Recollections of WWII

Lawrence W. Jones
Professor of Physics Emeritus
February, 2011

The Pearl Harbor attack news came to me during a college fair at our high school on Sunday afternoon, December 7, 1941. The next day, we were assembled in our high school auditorium to hear President Roosevelt’s radio speech announcing the declaration of war on Japan, Germany, and Italy.

The Navy had a V12 program which enabled one to go to college for training to be an officer in the navy, if qualified.   Since this would keep one out of exposure to combat for a few years, it was a very attractive option. However, in taking the test for this, I was disqualified because I am colorblind. A similar Air Force program also disqualified me. As my 18th birthday was in November, I wanted to get in as much college as possible before being drafted, hence I enrolled in Northwestern University (in Evanston, Illinois, just north of Chicago) summer school the month after graduating from high school. I lived at home in Wilmette, the village just north of Evanston, and commuted to Northwestern via the commuter electric train on the North Shore line.

Colleges were generally on the quarter system then, with year-round, 3-month terms, so I finished my first two terms (summer and fall) by the end of 1943, and got in about 6 weeks of my winter term before I was drafted and called to report for duty in mid-February, 1944. I reported at the nearby Fort Sheridan, north of Chicago, about 40 miles from home.

Army basic training, Radio Training in Alabama, and
advanced Radio Training at Ft. Benning, Georgia.

The army gave new draftees an IQ test, and also tested them for their capability to understand codes. As I had been a trumpet player in my high school band, and had also done OK on the code test, I was told that I had two options, beyond the simple infantry: 1) to be a company bugler, and 2) to be a radio operator. I learned that, in a WWII army, the bugler primarily served as a company commander’s errand boy, hence being a radio operator sounded more attractive (and safer), and I asked to join that group.

I was shipped to Fort McClellan, Alabama. There I was put into a company of mostly 18 year olds, many of whom had also failed to get into the V12 program, and some had also started college. We were all headed for the radio training, but first, had to go through the (approximately) 13 weeks of basic training that involved lots of physical conditioning and also learning to fire a rifle, to march, and to obey orders. It was physically exhausting, but I confess, it put us all into much better physical shape. After those 3 months, we embarked on the radio training. Of particular relevance were the hundreds of hours of Morse code training. Morse code was much easier to transmit than voice, hence was very important for the intra-army communications. Much of the communication was via 5 letter code groups; hence only recipients with the decoding information could get the messages. This provided appropriate security.

Following another ~12 weeks of radio school, some of us were sent to Fort Benning, Georgia, for advanced radio training. There we learned electronic fundamentals for the maintenance and repair of the radios used in the army. So by early December we were ready to be shipped overseas.  Fortunately, I had a furlough which enabled me to spend some days back home before reporting in New York.

Shipped to Europe, Dec. 1944; New York – Glasgow – Southampton – Le Havre – Metz.

 In New York, we boarded the British ship, the Aquitania, a classic old steamship with 4 smoke stacks. It was a sister ship to the Lusitania (the sinking of this ship by German U-boats in 1915 was a factor in America getting involved in World War I). Because of the danger of German submarines, we took a rather zigzag course; in fact the Lusitania then had some cannons mounted on it. We spent Christmas on the Atlantic, and after a week or so, landed in Scotland. We were shipped by train to Southampton where we boarded a boat to cross the English Channel – on which we celebrated New Years Eve. We landed at the French port near Le Havre and were loaded onto railroad freight cars. During WW1 these cars had been called “forty-and-eights”, as they could hold 40 soldiers or 8 horses. Yes, it was pretty crowded. We were taken by train to the French town of Metz, sleeping (more or less) overnight in the freight cars in which we were travelling. In Metz we were loaded into trucks, sitting in the open back of big dump trucks. We drove north; en route a jeep passed us carrying General George Patton, the head of this major section of the army. He waved to us. Finally we arrived at Arlon, Belgium. Up to this time, we hadn’t known where we would be deployed, or whether we would just be replacements for infantry who had been killed or wounded; in fact, that is what most of the guys in our trucks were headed for. Only two of the guys with whom I’d been in radio training at Ft. Benning were still with me.

January 1945:  Joined Signal Corps Company of the 35th Infantry Division at Arlon (Belgium)

In Arlon, my two radio-trained buddies and I were taken from the truck and sent to a place where we were informed that we would be joining the Signal Corps company of the 35th Infantry Division. Wow! Each division (several thousand soldiers) had, at its headquarters, a small signal company of perhaps 10 or 20 guys to maintain and manage the radio communications within the division. This headquarters was well behind the front lines, and was the location of the division commander (a general) and other necessary administration functions. The two chaps whom I had known from basic training onward were Bob Vial (from Indiana) and Bill Mulligan (from Cleveland). Bob, like me, had just turned 18, while Bill was at least 10 years older.

The 35th Division was, in peacetime, the National Guard Division of Kansas, Missouri, and Nebraska; it was called the “Santa Fe” Division, after the Santa Fe Trail, which, during the early 19th Century, crossed through these states and was the route (pre-railroad) for migration to the southwest.   Units of this Division had fought in 19th Century wars, including the Spanish-American war, and in World War I. As a unit, it had sailed to England in May of 1944. Although not part of the D-Day invasion of Normandy in June, the Division shipped to France in early July and was part of the American army which drove the Germans back through northern France during the last half of 1944.

Battle of the Bulge, Vosges (France), Maastricht (Holland),
the Ruhr valley, and to the Elbe (Germany).

We had arrived at Arlon while the 35th Division was busy beating back the Germans at the “Battle of the Bulge”; this was the German effort to crash through the British and American lines near the town of Bastogne, Belgium. The American 101st Airborne Division had occupied Bastogne, and the German troops surrounded the city. The 35th Division had the job of breaking through the German lines from the south (other allied troops were similarly involved on the north and west sides) to break the siege and relieve the 101st Division troops, which they did. In our new Signal Corps environment, we learned we were replacing guys who had to leave (I believe that it was because of illness, not military wounds). Our workshop, in which we repaired radios, etc., was a big trailer. Our sleeping accommodations were usually in some out-building (barn, etc.); it was winter (January) so we were glad not to be housed in a tent. We were comfortably behind the active “front lines”, where the actual battles were occurring; only rarely did we have artillery rounds land near us, and we never saw active German military troops.

As Signal Corps radio repair men, we spent much of our time fixing radios brought to us from soldiers in active front line battles. By far, the most common problem with these radios was that they didn’t work because they had become soaked (snow, rain, etc.). The cure (at which we became expert) was to dry them out thoroughly, usually by hanging them in front of a hot air vent overnight (or longer). Then they worked OK again.

After the Bastogne battle had been won in mid January, we were driven south to the French Vosges Mountains area, near the town of Sarrebourg – east of Nancy and only a few kilometers from the German border. We were in this region until the end of January, a relatively quiet time with no intense battles.

We were then moved back North in early February. The Signal Company and Division HQ were located in Maastricht, at the extreme southern tip of Holland. The Division first had to cross the Roer River, after which it met and joined with the British forces that had come down from the north. After freeing the Dutch cities of Venlo and crossing into Germany through the town of Geldern, the soldiers were able to reach the west bank of the Rhine River. Finally, on March 25, elements of the 35th Division crossed the Rhine, near the town of Wesel (north of Essen and the Ruhr valley). There had been pretty intense fighting through Holland and Germany during February and March; however we (in Division headquarters) were shielded from it, thank goodness! In Germany, a large number of the civilians had tried to stay behind German lines, and had hence moved east, out of their dwellings. As a result, in Germany we were usually lodged in empty apartments or houses, rather than out-buildings as in France, Belgium, and Holland.

More recently, my grand-daughter, upon learning that I had served in the army during the war, asked me: “Grandpa, did you ever kill anyone?” Thank goodness, I was able to tell her “No!”.

Hannover; V-E Day – May 9, 1945.

In early April, the Division moved relatively rapidly eastward through Germany, so that by April 16, units had crossed the Elbe near Tangermunde. Our Division headquarters was then in Burgstall, west of the Elbe. Bob Vial had done very well in our signal company, and was assigned to be a jeep driver for the group. He named his jeep “bob-cat”. Later, he was promoted to Corporal (from Private), and I was promoted to Private First Class – big deal! The German army had by then almost completely collapsed. But, apparently by diplomatic interactions with the Russians, it had been agreed that they would occupy Germany east of the Elbe, and the Americans and British would stay west. On April 26th, the Division headquarters moved back west to Hannover to assume the role of occupation troops, and its battles were essentially over.

On the morning of May 9, I was in the radio operating area and got a Morse code message: “V E Day”; i.e. Victory in Europe day. Yes, earlier that morning Germany had indeed formally capitulated and ended the war. Hitler committed suicide (as we learned later) and the country was totally occupied by Russian, American, and British troops. After a couple of weeks in Hannover, on about May 17 we moved to Recklinghausen, on the north-east side of the Essen and Ruhr Valley industrial zone. Apparently the British and American senior diplomats and officers had organized occupational regions for the different military units of Britain, America, and France.

German occupation: Bad Bertrich in the Mosel River valley.

As the Recklinghausen area was to be under British authority, our 35th Division was moved, on about May 30, to the Mosel River valley; our Signal Company was put up in the spa town of Bad Bertrich (of course, in German, “bad” means “bath”). It was small and pleasant, it had been a resort spa, and had a very nice bathing area with warm spring water. One morning I had gotten up about 6 o’clock to refuel and start our local electric generator, and a German fellow came up to me and said he wanted to show me where a gun was. I walked with him to a nearby barn, and he reached onto a straw-covered shelf and brought down a German 9 mm Luger pistol, which he gave to me. Almost certainly, he was an ex-German army officer, and wanted to get rid of the weapon, so he would not be caught with it and suffer the consequences, and also didn’t want the owner of the barn to be held accountable. I still have the gun.

Summer 1945; Sommesous, France. The atom bomb and the end of WWII.

We stayed in Bad Bertrich through June and early July, finally moving to a Camp Norfolk near Sommesous, France on July 11, as this Mosel Valley area of Germany was now to be occupied by the French. Sommesous was only about 120 km (a couple hours drive) east of Paris, and we had no military responsibilities there. But trans-Atlantic transportation was fully loaded, and besides, the Pacific war was still very active. We were quite apprehensive that we’d be shipped out to fight on that front. However, with time on our hands, we were frequently given the opportunity to make day-long visits to Paris, which I thoroughly enjoyed! We saw the Louvre Museum, Arc de Triomphe, Champs Élysées, Notre Dame cathedral, grand opera, burlesque shows, etc. One source of money for these day-long visits was the ability to purchase a carton of cigarettes for $0.50 at our camp, which I could then sell on the street in Paris for about $10 (in equivalent French francs).

While at this camp, we learned about the atomic bomb dropping in Japan (we had radio, and also the army newspaper); I was fascinated by what I learned of this, and indeed, this is one factor which got me interested in the physics that I pursued on my return to college after the war. Then, on August 14 came the news of the Japanese surrender, “V-J Day”, the official end of World War II. It was a great relief to all of us. But it was still necessary to wait a bit before returning to America, in view of the enormous number of American troops in Europe.

September 1945: Return to America on the Queen Mary; Camp Breckinridge, Kentucky.

In late August, we started our move from Camp Norfolk, slowly making our way to Le Havre and across the English Channel. Then, on September 5, we boarded the Queen Mary, then one of the largest ocean liners in existence, for the trip across the Atlantic. Yes, it was crowded; each stateroom was fitted with about a dozen bunks (stacked 2 or 3 high). The trip to New York only took 4 days, as I recall. Back in the U.S., we were shipped to Camp Breckinridge, Kentucky. Again, because of the millions of G.I.s in service, we were not all discharged at once; we were held at this camp for a few months. Of course, we were given frequent furloughs, which I utilized to hitch-hike back to the Chicago area to be with my family.

February 1946: discharge, return to school.

Finally, in early February, I was discharged from the Army officially. One discharge benefit was the G.I. Bill, passed by congress to reward and benefit those who had been in service. It provided free college tuition for the number of years you had been in service plus one additional year. As I had served almost exactly two years, I received 3 years free tuition, and having credit for my freshman year at Northwestern, I returned there, and (again going to school each summer also) completed my B.S. degree in June, 1948. While I had planned to be a zoology major before the war (I loved collecting insects, and had found an excellent entomology professor), I decided to also pursue physics, and hence wound up with a double major.

One unforgettable lecture: Immediately upon my return home from the Army, I wanted to get back to Northwestern to finish the courses which I had left in mid-term when I was drafted. I had been in the freshman chemistry class, so I found when it was being given and went back to that class. It was mind-boggling: what I heard was the same professor giving identically the same lecture I had heard the week I had been drafted, exactly 2 years earlier! In those two years, the World had gone through colossal changes; huge battles, Bastogne, the end of Hitler and Nazi Germany, Iwo Jima, the Atomic Bomb, Peace with Japan, the beginning of the United Nations, the death of our President Franklin Roosevelt, etc. But the chemistry lecture had not changed.

A final note: I stayed in occasional contact with Bob Vial, and learned that he had come to Michigan to continue his education. On one occasion (in 1947, I believe) he arranged for me to visit him in Ann Arbor. I came over here; it was my first visit to Ann Arbor. He hosted me in his fraternity house, and we had a pleasant weekend. I learned later that he had gone on to law school in Texas. In about 1990, there was a physics project in which I had been involved which was setting up a major research facility south of Dallas, and I went down to Dallas for meetings two or three times (this project, the Superconducting Super Collider, was cancelled in 1992). I looked up Bob, as I’d heard he was in Dallas, and indeed I located him. He was head of a very successful law firm, with an office on the top floor of a fine, downtown Dallas office building. He also had me to his house for dinner, where I met his wife, and saw a really elegant place. In one room, he had many mounted game animals, including tropical and unusual ones. He said that, since he’d learned to shoot a rifle in the Army, he took up big game hunting, and enjoyed trips to unusual places.

So that’s my story. I was very fortunate to have escaped serious combat activities, and although I regretted losing a couple of years of my college time, I also believe that the army training was good for me physically and emotionally; it broadened my horizons. I had learned the electronic fundamentals and the Morse code that enabled me to become an amateur radio operator, a hobby that I pursued for many years. I enjoyed seeing a significant part of Europe during my service, and learned to appreciate the disparate cultures and languages there.

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