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Letter XII – You think you’ve got problems?

The 11th Airborne Division, still in New Guinea  and continuing to specialize their training are coming closer and closer to their time for combat, unbeknownst to them.  Their commander, General Swing, awaits the word from General MacArthur.

Backpacking the good ol' fashion way

Backpacking the good ol’ fashion way

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Letter XII                                                       ?? Problems ??                                           0800 Sunday 9/3/44

Dear Mom,  We will start off first with “Webster’s” definition of the word — problem.  “A question for solution, and a proposition to be demonstrated.”  This is all very true, only in the army, although it is demonstrated, it never turns out in a satisfactory solution.

For some unknown reason, the hint of a problem soon-to-be gets around long before it is ever officially announced.  When once you hear about it, you begin to wonder just how you will get out of going and wonder if going on sick call will help.  The best thing is to try to get on some detail, but generally, the details floating around loose at that time are of such a nature that going on the problem is much easier.

No one likes or cares for problems including the officers and non-coms, except maybe a few who are bucking and hope to show their leader that they have tactical and sure-fire P.F.C. abilities.

No matter how easy or simple the problem, you always have to carry around a load of unnecessary equipment.  On the day set forth for the problem they put up a list of the stuff you are to take with you.  After an hour or two spent trying to get everything into the pack, just big enough to hold a pair of socks, a tent, poles, rain gear, poncho, insect repellent and your toilet articles, you are pretty well tired out and lie down for a few minutes rest.  You no sooner do that than the sergeant will come around with a revised list of equipment and again you unpack and re-pack.  This goes on through the day until finally in utter despair you pick up your duffel bag and carry that on your back.

Finally the whistle blows.  You hurriedly put on your pack, pick up your rifle and dash to fall in the formation forming outside.  After standing there for 30 or 40 minutes, you realize that all your rushing was in vain and that you have a chance to untangle yourself from the pack harness and straighten it out.  You no sooner start to do this than the order comes to pull out and get going.

While marching out, it suddenly dawns on you that a quick visit to the latrine would have helped, but is now impossible to get to.  After walking for two hours, your pack feels like a ton and your five-pound rifle now weighs twenty.  The heat is slowly getting you down and you begin to wonder, is it all worth it?  Soon the Lt. comes prancing alongside of you and walking just as easy as falling off a log.  He says a few words to you, such as, “Close it up.” “Keep in line” or “How you doing fella?” as he passes by.  You wonder how the devil he can keep it up, until you take a good look at his pack.  Many are the times when I wondered what would happen if I stuck a pin in it.  Wonderful things these basketball bladders.

When finally you arrive at the next to last stop, the Lt. calls his men around him and proceeds to try and tell them what this problem is about and what we are supposed to do.  We are all too tired to listen in the first place and in the second place — don’t give a damn.  All this time you watch the Lt. and soon you realize that he didn’t much care for the problem and is probably just as annoyed as you.

When you finally hit the place where the problem is, confusion takes over and the problem is started.  Orders are given and not carried out, cause generally the G.I. has been told before to do something else, so that by the time order is restored, all is in a worse shape than before.  The Lt. takes out a map to try and locate himself and is only to find that the map he has is the one relating to last week’s problem.  No matter, from then on, where the C.P. and assembly area were to be, now, wherever you are at that particular moment will become the C.P. and assembly area.  If the rest of the company was fortunate enough to locate the right place — the hell with them — let them find us.

You are then assigned to different spots and told to dig in.  Now, digging in calls for some thought.  If you just dig a slit trench, it doesn’t call for much work, but you can always be seen and so you can’t sleep.  But, if you dig a larger hole, called a foxhole, you can safely sleep away the night and also — the problem.  Myself?  I go for the foxhole on the slit trench side as it affords me the opportunity of sleeping in a horizontal position.

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Soon the whistle blows announcing the end of the problem.  You awaken to find that it is the next day and that once again you slept through the whole mess.  Questions are asked as to who or what side won, did the enemy get through and a thousand and one others.  Before leaving the place, you now have to shovel the dirt back into your hole, as leaving blank open holes around are dangerous to life and limb.  When that is completed, you put your backpack back on and trudge your weary way back.

Upon arriving back in camp, critiques are held and then you find out what you were supposed to have learnt while you were out there.  I have always been of the opinion that if critiques were held before going out, it would save us all a lot of trouble and also make going on the problem — unnecessary.  Once back in your tent, you unpack and think that now you will lie down and have a little nap, only to find out that the detail you tried to get on in order to miss the problem has materialized and that you are to get up and get on it.  Oh, weary bones, will they never have any rest?

Don’t give up, for after all, the war can’t last forever.  One thing you can always count on though, problems are the pride and joy of the army and will continue on being as long as there is an army.

Hope I’ve confused you as much as we are.  I’ll leave you as that damn detail has come up and so I’ll have to carry my weary body out and hope I last out the day.

Confused as all hell,    Everett

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But training goes on …..

New Guinea, training. Notice the date on the picture – 9/4/44

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Camp Polk & the Louisiana Maneuvers

Army Town - Leesburg, PA

Army Town – Leesburg, PA

It took 22 trains and one week to transport the proud and cocky division to Camp Polk in the west-central area of Louisiana.  This was the home of the armored forces and it would not take long for the two units to clash.  But first, they planned to enjoy the improved living conditions and the 3.2 beer.  They found time to “hit the town” and often it was a place called “Scotty’s,” just outside of Southern Pines.  The tank units did not take kindly to the finely tuned troopers who were in the best shape of their lives (and they knew it!).  The 11th would often “unboot” the tankers when they were in town, forcing them to return to base barefoot and find their footwear neatly lined up in their barracks.

building a pontoon boat in Calcasieu Swamp

building a pontoon boat in Calcasieu Swamp

Beginning Jan. 10, the men underwent harsh training in preparation for the tests at the hands of the Third Army.  The Louisiana Maneuvers began Feb. 5 with the troopers bivouacked near Hawthorne, LA.  There were 4 tactical maneuvers lasting 3 days each.  First, they jumped and marched immediately after.  Then they attacked and defended using an attack sequence of “flags & umpires.”  Finally, the “enemy” broke through and they would retreat.  The weather in the Calcasieu Swamp was snow, hail, sleet and enough rain to swallow a jeep.  The men joked that the camp should be a naval base.  On Feb. 20, the 11th airborne division took and passed their infantry tests.

About this time, Gen. Swing was pleased to be told that the troopers were being sent to the Pacific and MacArthur would consider the unit his “secret weapon.”  This turned out to be one reason for the lack of newspaper coverage for the division until they landed in the Philippines.  I discovered this after an extensive search in the Australian library and newspaper archives.

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Click on photos to enlarge.

The 11th was restricted to base for one month.  Swing decided the men should travel to their POE (Port of Exit/Entry) Camp Stoneman, CA incognito as Shipment # 1855 in an effort to bypass the Inspector General’s men.  Orders were to look and act as a “straight-leg” unit; ALL paratrooper I.D. and clothing to be stowed away.

News from home:  The Banner (Broad Channel newspaper sent to servicemen) reports:  NY Governor Dewey signed a bill that would allow fishermen of Jamaica Bay to shoot an unlimited amount of eels, but the shooting had to be done with bow and arrow.  Smitty’s mom says:  everyone is still trying to figure that one out.

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Fellow blogger, Carl D’Agostino at “i know i made you smile”, sent me his father’s pictures and information.  Arthur D’Agostino had been with the 8th Armored Division.  They were stationed at Camp Campbell, KY until 1943 when they were moved to Camp Polk, LA to prepare for combat.  The division was sent to the European Theater on 5 December 1943, but Mr. D’Agostino was in recovery from surgery and was spared the journey.  Carl’s blog can be found HERE.

Click on images to enlarge.

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