Smitty – Letter XIII

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Back in the states, people were still dancing to the tunes of The Dorsey Brothers, Count Basie and Artie Shaw.  They listened to the songs of Doris Day, the Andrew Sisters, Lena Horne and Rosemary Clooney.  But, some others weren’t so lucky, in the army there was always latrine duty, as depicted in the following letter from Smitty.

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Letter XIII                               Latrines                        Wednesday 9/5/44

Dear Mom,

Many are the times you have heard me refer to the latrines.  Never before had I any conception or realized the amount of genius and mathematical figuring that was necessary for the building of one of these casual looking comfort stations.

Yesterday I had the dubious honor of being selected, with four other disgruntled G.I.s, to labor on a detail whose sole aim and mission was the digging and building of a latrine.  It seems that in order to get a latrine built correctly there also has to be present a lieutenant and a hard to please sergeant.  Their presence is essential due to the fact that if they weren’t around, it would never get built, no less started and to supervise the completion and finesse details of the finer points necessary for sanitation and the comfort of the men.  You can most generally find these two worthy in some far off spot, away from all the work.

slit-trench

slit-trench

To begin with, a place is chosen suitable for a latrine, generally about a half mile from the nearest inhabitant and well hidden in the brush and woods.  This is done for the very simple reason that it affords the stricken G.I. a chance to brush up on his long forgotten tracking and compass reading lessons, also the hike involved tends to make up for the many he has missed.

You wait then while the Lt., in a very business-like manner, marks out the length and width desired.  When finished, he gives you a short speech on the importance of the detail and the time limit allotted, ending with: “Good digging fellows.  I know you can do it, as you are the picked men!”

You pick up your shovels and picks and gloomily get to work.  First, the picks are put into play loosening up the stubborn ground.  Then, the shovels get to work removing the loose dirt, making sure to pile it evenly around the hole.  This procedure is followed until finally you have now a hole six feet long by five feet in width with a depth ranging anywheres from six to eight feet.  Try as you may to dig less than six feet, the sergeant always has a ruler handy which he guards with his life.  One would think that a latrine hole that size would last forever, but as I found out, in the army — they don’t.

pit latrine

pit latrine

Next step is to lower into this hole oil drums whose both ends have been removed.  This end cutting process is something foreign to us as they had another detail doing that the day before.  I understand though that it is a highly skilled job in that keeping the ax blades from chipping is quite a problem.  These drums, once lowered and set side by side, draws to a close the crude laborious end of the job.

Boards, saws, hammers and nails now appear along with some overbearing would-be carpenters.  They proceed to build a coffin-like box which looks more like anything else but a box.  This affair, when finished, is fitted over the hole, covering completely the hole and part of the piles of loose dirt spread around the outer fringe.  This type of latrine box is called the settee type.  It is very comfortable to sit on if rough boarding isn’t employed.  When the box is completed to the satisfaction and sitting height comfort of all present, holes are then cut in the top.  These holes are oval in shape, but of different width and shapes.  The rear end of a G.I.’s anatomy, I’ve found, has many varied shapes and sizes.

The next thing to put in an appearance is the latrine blind and screen.  This is very simple, although at times men have leaned back into it and got tangled up in the canvas, bringing it where the blind should be.  While the blind is being put up on a long pipe, funnel-shaped at one end comes up and demands a lot of detailed attention.  The height of this pipe, when set, is a trial and tribulation to all and never satisfies all who use it.  This funneled affair is intended for what all funnels are.  The directing of a stream of water.

The Lt. and sergeant now come out of hiding, inspect it and proclaim it a job well done and worthy of their time and supervision, strutting off gaily chatting, leaving us to find our way alone, unguided and without a compass, back to our tents.  We, in the building of this latrine were fortunate in that we only had to erect it once and it was the correct position.  Generally, you dig three or four only to find out that it is out of line somehow with the next latrine a mile away.

Army field latrine

Army field latrine

Generals, colonels and majors all visit while you are at work.  Their presence is also needed for the fact that when they are around, you stand at attention and in that way get a moment’s rest.  The captain generally comes out to see how you are doing and always tells you to hurry it up as the boys back in camp are prancing around like young colts and doing weird dance steps all the while hoping that they can hold out until its completion.

When once finished and back in camp, you are kept busy giving the boys directions as to where it is and then have to listen to them gripe about the distance away from their tent the blame thing is.  It is, I have found out, a thankless detail and one I intend missing the next time there is one to be built.There are of course different types of latrines as the illustrations show, but most of those are for troops on the move.  Now, why they should say, ‘troops on the move’ I do not know, for certainly no matter whether in the latrines or on the way to it, you are most certainly moving.

Before any G.I. finds the latrine, the flies are already there.  No latrine is a latrine until after a family or two moves in.  They too are necessary in that without them as an annoying element, some men would never leave, others would fall asleep, while others would use it as an indefinite hiding place from some hike or detail.  Latrines are also necessary for rumors.  Until a good latrine is built, rumors around the camp lay dormant.  Many new and strange acquaintances are made and the souls of many a man have been saved while sitting in this sanctuary place of appeasement.

No place in the army gets the care and attention of a latrine.  Orderlies are assigned daily to see to its cleanliness.  Medical inspections are twice a week, while on Saturdays it has to stand a general inspection.  It is the haven of good-fellowship, conversations and a relief to all men in the end.

Hoping I have portrayed for you the army’s version of a rest station, I’ll close, as the flies in here are very annoying and the fellow standing and waiting for me to leave is going into a rage and walking up and down all the while eyeing me up and down as if to kill.

Ending this in a hasty departure and on the run, I am always,  Your son, Everett

Click on images to enlarge.

[Smitty’s illustrations will appear in the following post.]

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Military Humor –

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Farewell Salutes –

Weston Boyd – Leesburg, FL; US Army, WWII & Korea

Dante Bulli – Cherry, IL; US Army Air Corps, WWII, B-26 pilot, SAC Col. (ret. 32 yrs), Bronze Star

painting "Take a Trip With Me" by SFC Peter G. Varisano

painting “Take a Trip With Me” by SFC Peter G. Varisano

Arthur Cain – No.Hampton, NH; US Navy, WWII, PTO

Roy Countryman – Longview, WA; US Army Air Corps, WWII, PTO, 11th Airborne Division, 1st Lt.

Thomas Feran Sr. – Cleveland, OH; US Navy, WWII

Betty (Garber) Follander – Clinton, MA; cadet nurse, WWII

William McCurdy – Harrisburg, PA; US Army, WWII, PTO, Bronze Star

Seth McKee – McGehee, AR; US Army Air Corps, WWII, ETO, pilot, General (Ret.)

Patrick Stewart – Hawkes Bay, NZ; RNZ Navy # 7563, WWII, signalman

Clarence Young Jr. – Portland, OR; US Army, WWII, Africa & CBI, Engineers

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About GP Cox

Everett Smith served with the Headquarters Company, 187th Regiment, 11th A/B Division during WWII. This site is in tribute to my father, "Smitty." GPCox is a member of the 11th Airborne Association. Member # 4511 and extremely proud of that fact!

Posted on January 23, 2017, in First-hand Accounts, Letters home, SMITTY, WWII and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 96 Comments.

  1. Excellent portrayal of the lives and times of the latrine, I have certainly built my fair share of them, all according to the British Army Military Manual on Health and Hygiene in the Field.
    Smitty is correct in portraying the amount of dignitaries who always seem to appear during this grand construction.
    Cheers.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hilarious. Very witty, and accurate too!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. What a great writer your father was – he can make an amusing story out of anything! Loved his surprise ending too.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes he could, Carol, and thank you. I used to ask him about that when I was a kid and he’d say you have to use your imagination. When I realized I didn’t have such a keen imagination, he thought maybe TV was to blame. Everything right there in front of us, we (kids) didn’t need to use it. The more I thought about it, thee more I thought he was right and I started to read more and use my imagination to picture the scenes – I’ll never be like Dad, but it helped.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Great description of building a latrine. Gave a whole new meaning to “troops on the move”. Had to smile that it was a “relief to all men in the end.” What a great sense of humor. Your grandmother had to be laughing by the time she was finished reading it. I bet she read it to all the neighbors.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I think a nearby bush would do as well. Especially at night in foreign terrain. When you gotta go, a toilet half a mile away in the jungle might not seem like a practical quest. Then there’s the problem of toilet paper, I have used leaves and underbrush – as able.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. The infamous latrine duty! So important, so infamous, and so glad that’s not my task today. Another great post!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I imagine it is hard and unpleasant work, but someone has to do it. Maintenance and inspections are necessary to keep illnesses from cropping up and spreading. I enjoyed the post. Thanks for the visit.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Another great letter from Smitty, GP! I remember latrines from Girl Scout camp, and being on a cleaning detail one time. 🙂

    A relative who grew up in the Kentucky mountains once told me a story about latrines from his youth. There was a grumpy old hillbilly the boys would play pranks on. He live alone up in his little cabin, and had an outhouse, as everyone did. One night, the boys dug a pit just behind the old outhouse, then picked up the outhouse and moved it over the new pit. The disguised the old pit hole with branches and leaves. Later on, the man came out to use the outhouse and fell in. He was cursing in the dark as the boys were laughing up in the woods.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Your Dad was a cynic. I like that. A cynic with a sense of humour … I like that even more.

    And now please forgive me, I’m busy trying to link ‘scuttle’ with ‘butt’ and ‘humour’ — I’m sure that just like the mathematician with constipation (he worked it out with a pencil) I’ll get there in the end …

    Liked by 1 person

  10. His letters are so full of dry humor I always enjoy reading them, whatever his task at hand.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. Truly a gifted writer to imbue an account of latrine construction with such interest and humour!

    Liked by 3 people

  12. I could do with a new outside lavatory, I can even build it it with wit, and wisdom for my fellow man. Smitty was a such a great writer!

    Liked by 2 people

  13. Your dad described the construction of a latrine with so much detail and so much humor that one is tempted to build one. Unfortunately, I never had this enjoyable experience when I served in the West German army. Perhaps in the 21st century the latrines have become obsolete and are being replaces by portable outhouses. A real enjoyable post, GP Cox!

    Liked by 2 people

    • I’ve laughed every time I’ve read this letter, but never had the urge to go build one myself. Despite the humor – it sure seemed like a lot of work! 🙂 Thanks for coming by, Peter, always a pleasure.

      Liked by 1 person

  14. Well done! I’ll chuckle every time I see the word “latrine” from now on! 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  15. Great story, Everett. Love your Dad’s humorous narrative. Before indoor plumbing, my cousin’s grandma had a latrine at the side of the house. And we did in the shed attached to the house. Can remember cut up pages of a Sears & Roebuck catalog for toilet paper! Cold in the wintertime! 🎶 Christine

    Liked by 2 people

  16. Brilliant – lots of detail and great humour.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Smitty was hilarious–the most mundane task turns into a chance for humor.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s what always hit me too, RoseMary. I’m really glad that you enjoyed Dad’s letter as much as I have over the years. The man was priceless and is sorely missed.

      Like

  18. dear aficionado, i am commenting your posts in general. i think your post are very good and informative and send to the udience an objective point of view about the military life during wartimes.

    i wish to add a brief note : i noticed that from the pictures soldiers in wwii (but i think it should be the same also for wwi) the look of american soldiers is better healthy than the same of e.g. italian soldiers. i am italian and was borned in 1950 (five years after the end of wwii) my father was imprisoned as pow in a champ in india and there he appreciates the value of the high level of health of the allies armies. my italy was a land for armies for long centuries since the roman empire, the disaster of the wars are in the collective inconscious of my fellow citizens. maybe these millenary experience is condensed in the pained face of the italian soldiers fighting the war. and perhaps a bit of fatalism. so i wish to tell you the feeling of a people that has almost lost all the modern war of the xx century.

    i thank again a lot for your posts.

    ciao.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You are very welcome and I thank you for sharing your father’s story and your country. I am curious as to how an Italian soldier ended up in a POW camp in India – any idea?

      Liked by 1 person

      • dear aficionado , my father was 25 years old when the fascist political system conquested the ethiopia because to start the so called “fascist empire” similar to the roman empire. that was the ideology in europe in xx century. was enlisted as soldier and fighted in africa from 1935 until 1942 when the italians were beaten by the english army. my father was pow in nairobi (kenia) and bombay (india) until 1945. passing the years i was surprised that my father had always good words for the allies. of course i am speaking about the great european war hence my father had (as soldier in war) seen the real thing about the war. he was always grateful to the allies. hugs from italy. ciao.

        Liked by 1 person

  19. Amusing and informative!

    Liked by 1 person

  20. I am not receiving notification from WordPress anymore GP.

    Like

  21. Love the humor! I ass-ume (pardon the pun) that the latrines were patterned after the old outhouses on the pre-WWII home front, although the latter were probably built over much deeper holes to last indefinitely.

    Incidentally, Rosemary Clooney’s first recordings were as a big band singer in 1946, after WWII was over, but the other artists you list were indeed being danced and listened to during the war.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sure seemed like the soldiers knew how to make do (oops). But you’re right about the design.
      Sorry about the screw up with Rosemary. Should have know she was younger, being George’s aunt and all.

      Liked by 2 people

  22. Another great letter! Now I would imagine the only duty worse than building the latrines was cleaning them. Can we look forward to a letter describing THAT? 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  23. That was hilarious and probably done that way to this day.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I suppose it depends on the terrain and equipment available. This sure sounded like quite a project to me! Thanks for reading it, Jacqui and thrilled you enjoyed it.

      Like

  24. Another wonderful letter.
    In Vietnam, it was common not to dig a hole but to put the latrine over a drum; the excrement would be mixed with oil and burned.
    I was an advisor living with the Vietnamese. The 5-man team at district headquarters where my team had its “hooch” traded someone in the Navy a Chinese submachine gun for the construction of a flush toilet. So when my team went in from the field, we had the use of this luxury. During the week, we just used any convenient rice paddy.

    Liked by 1 person

  25. What a great sense of humor your dad had ! He got away with making fun of the officers, too ( and the hard to please sergeant ) . His mom must have loved reading that letter . The worries of combat are humorously deflected .

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, Dad sure a funny way of looking at things. As close as he ended up with Gen. Swing, I don’t think he was treated too harshly – and someone with this sense of humor – how can you stay angry with him?

      Like

  26. I love reading these letters. Never knew how much work went into a latrine.

    Liked by 1 person

  27. Still smiling and never thought about latrines. Love the way your Dad told about it, Everett.

    Liked by 1 person

  28. So funny. What an interesting choice of topics to share with mom! Nice sense of humor. 🙂

    Like

    • Well, grandma knew dad’s sense of humor [hers was pretty good too] and he wasn’t about to tell her about any combat, so he came up with what he saw and did. They’ve entertained me for many years!

      Liked by 1 person

  29. I’m so glad he had, and was able to maintain his strong sense of humor. Important duty, no doubt. I wonder how you got on that list, and if some people were always on it.

    Liked by 1 person

  30. LOL love that letter. Reminds me of my own experiences, no latrines when with a desert mobile unit. It was not polite to ask where a colleague was going when he marched off into the desert with a shovel and a bog-roll (toilet paper). 😀

    Liked by 2 people

  31. I like the humor always coming back in his letter.

    Liked by 1 person

  32. When building a latrine, it is always important to enclose it in a well-sealed structure – this is to prevent the escape of foul smelling gases.

    Liked by 1 person

  33. This was hysterical!…anyone who has ever served will enjoy this immensely!

    Liked by 1 person

  34. This was a great read….interesting and funny too. Smitty sure had a great sense of humor!

    Liked by 1 person

  35. I have a picture of my dad’s detail digging a latrine. I’ve never heard the story, behind the story, about digging latrines.

    Liked by 1 person

  36. I can well imagine how unpopular that detail must have been. Then again, building one is preferable to cleaning or emptying one!
    Great wit and writing skill from your Dad once again. As I have said before, if only he was still around, his own blog would be a must-read!
    Best wishes, Pete.

    Liked by 1 person

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