THE TAG END of January, 1942: Pearl Harbor not yet two months into history. Beyond hope of succor but hanging on stubbornly against hopeless odds, the dwindling ranks of a mixed U. S. and Philippine Army were being pushed in for a last stand on Battaan, facing humiliating surrender, the horror of a "death march" and years of imprisonment. Seemingly unbeatable German hordes were tightening their grip on Europe, outfighting the British forces over Africa's desert sands.
"Blitzkrieg" had captured the American public's imagination. No more would there be endless years of stalemate between vast armies imprisoned in their mud-filled trenches; no more would advances be measured as in football--in a few yards lost or gained. "Mechanization" now was the magic word, and America was following the pattern--putting together one armored division after another, as fast as the Arsenal of Democracy could turn out the kinds of armored vehicles that had swept the British back into the English Channel and the "mighty" French Army into ignominious capitulation.
That was the situation when by dribs and drabs a handful of officers and key enlisted men assembled at Ft. Knox, Ky., to constitute the nucleus of the 86th Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, 6th Armored Division. It was a time of expansion when the War Department was dipping into established organizations to find a few highly seasoned professional soldiers to lead some semi-pro ex-National Guardsmen and Reservists who'd had perhaps a year of active duty, and depend on them to build viable units out of still-to-ripen crops of ROTC cadets, OCS graduates, a few volunteers and a mass of draftees.
Initially, the then-Capt. Albert E. Harris was acting in command of the embryo battalion and doubling as adjutant pending the arrival a few weeks later of the then-MaJ. James B. Quill. Capt. John H. Huckins was S-2 and assistant S-3; 1st Lt. Romain B. Robinson, S-4; 1st Lt. Albert B. Landis, maintenance officer; 1st Lt. Thomas P. Crawford's arrival relieved Capt. Harris of the adjutant's duties. Chaplain(1st Lt.) Kent M. Dale, who'd been a Regular Army soldier before entry into the ministry, profited by his GI experience in "empathizing" with the homesick "fillers" who were to arrive in coming months.
Capt. Wells Fay was assigned to command Headquarters Company. With few exceptions, the "line" companies were to have but a single officer for months to come. 1st Lt. William F. Poulterer had Company A, Capt. Fernald Bagley Company B, 1st Lt. Allan G. Crist was backed up by 1st Lt. William U. Kennon in Company C, 1st Lt. George M. Gaither's Company D (the tank company) also had 1st Lts. William H. Derr and Herbert Henderson Jr.
Technically, the 86th wasn't yet a battalion, nor was the 6th Armored a division. For the time being we were orphans--assigned on paper to the Armored Force Replacement Training Center Pool pending the division's activation. But that didn't matter; strangers though we were for the most part, we faced a new experience eagerly and (to use an unavoidable cliche) welcomed the challenge though the environment was anything but bright and sunny; the war hot, the Ft. Knox winter icy and gloomy.
The only glitter came from the unseen riches in gold bars that lay, invisible to eyes of all but a few custodians, in the fabled vaults that were "off limits" at the edge of the post. Vast as it was, the "populated" area teemed with troops. The 1st Armored Division luxuriated in permanent brick barracks and other structures or weather-tight frame buildings, as did the Replacement Training Center. The 5th Armored, its organization and early training completed and ripe for large scale maneuvers, was making do in partially winterized pyramidal tents. The moist winter-time chill that makes the Ohio River Valley famed as an incubator of respiratory ailments was augmented by an all-pervasive, odiferous haze of smoke from a thousand chimneys.
We were the uninvited "guests" of our counterparts of the 85th Recon, whose people fairly well concealed their lack of enthusiasm about the circumstance. A distant BOQ had been found for the dozen or so early arrivals among the 86th's officers; space was found among the 85th's tents for the enlisted cadremen.
Acting CO Harris and his staff had day-to-day paperwork to handle; the cooks aided their 85th counterparts. Upon a graveled, sometimes icy, sometimes slushy but always windswept hill the mechanics toiled with numb fingers on a handful of hand-me-down vehicles.
Without troops to train, and minimal responsibilities, company officers and their first sergeants found themselves crammed into their opposite numbers' pyramidals. Feeling like intruders (with considerable justification), they tried to be inconspicuous, which is difficult to do in crowded confines, particularly when space around the center-pole is dominated by a hot, conical Sibley stove. Close approach produced a simulation of the "wet dog" smell of steaming woolen shortcoats; too close and prolonged approach, the odor of smoldering wool.
A periodic routine was to send a GI scrambling up the sloping corner of a tent to rap at the stovepipe spark-arresting screen and unclog the accumulated oily soot. One consequence was an unwelcome shower of gunk. Another, and infinitely more exciting, was to produce a shower of sparks which at the very least turned a reasonably water-tight tent into a sieve--at the most a full-fledged if short-lived fire, injurious to no one though gradually depleting the Army's inventory of left-over World I canvas abodes.
But the 86th gradually was coming into its own. Bit by bit, its ranks grew; bit by bit, as the 5th Armored reached time for departure to other scenes, the 86th acquired property to call its own--most significantly , a sizeable acquisition of hand-me-down scout cars, trucks and peeps.
That, perhaps more than the official ceremony of activation on February 15, 1942, created the proud feeling of being an actual, viable unit, though still far from full-fleshed, full-blooded. Hard-pressed to find within our ranks enough even minimally qualified drivers for our vehicles, we undertook the necessary training, including practice convoys, to insure that we could manage the 660-mile motor march to Camp Chaffee, Ark., in a creditably military manner.
The march marked, in effect, a coming of age. It is easy to forget that it was in the pre-Interstate Age; this was an age of two-lane roads that led inexorably over the streets of every hamlet, town and city. The first day's march of 185 miles on March 12 took us just over the state line to a bivouac at Dover, Tenn. The next day we covered 184 miles to the outskirts of Memphis and from there it was a relatively prodigious 204 miles, dragging endlessly through Memphis and its suburbs and across the Mississippi River into Arkansas and to the third night's bivouac at Conway. The fourth day, an easy 118 miles, brought us to the gates of a spanking-new home at Camp Chaffee.
We had only really begun to witness an interest that went beyond the bounds of simple curiosity within the people who had turned out to observe our passage, We were to find good people using up their gasoline rationing coupons to visit outlying bivouac areas, seeking GIs who would share dinner and an evening in their homes. Camp Chaffee was so new that every structure smelled of fresh-cut lumber; so new that we couldn't occupy our motor pool or drive vehicles close to our buildings until the area had been policed, inch by inch, of dropped nails that hurrying carpenters hadn't had time to salvage (nails that, along with scrap lumber from a huge Post salvage yard, provided home-made shelving and clothes hooks for barracks, offices and supply rooms).
We "had it made" with our handful of "Ft. Knox originals" this far; now came from the Training Center the communications, maintenance and other specialists who were vital to full operation. At the same time began our emergence into a full-fledged battalion. Over successive days, solid trainloads discharged thousands of tousled, rumpled, weary and confused draftees, direct from induction stations.
How did a typical draftee react to the situation?
"Well," one recruit recalled, "we were met at the railroad siding, heaven knows where, by a bunch of officers wearing Cavalry boots and carrying riding crops. They graciously bade us welcome after our long ride and offered those who were exhausted from the rigors of the trip transportation in trucks. Once the trucks had departed with the wiser newcomers an authoritative voice addressed itself to the remainder of the contingent and said, 'Now, God damn it, you're in the Armored Force. Pick up your gear and follow me.'
"Those who took advantage of the truck ride, and those who wished they had, wound up several miles later at the Camp Chaffee arena. There you eventually stood at attention in front of a spit-and-polish Cavalry officer who was armed with your civilian record, IQ and mechanical aptitude ratings while he decided to which of the division's units you would be assigned.
"If you happened to get a little wise with the interviewing officer and made some such remark as "I came into the Army to be a fighting soldier" he was only too happy to oblige. He leaned over and scratched "86th Recon" on your shipping tag and before the night was over you were bedded down somewhere in the area of the 86th Armored Reconnaissance Battalion.
"Come the next day and you were marched to Battalion Headquarters, where you got to meet Capt. Harris. He talked with you like a Dutch uncle and made an honest effort to determine where you might fit into the battalion's scheme of things. If you had been a newspaperman, for instance, he might send you to a company commanded by another former newspaperman who was desperate for someone with any degree of typing ability to draft as company clerk".
At any rate, from the division's Classification Center came the 86th's allotment of members-to-be. Tables of Organization and Equipment at hand, and the records of individual GIs at his disposal, Capt. Harris sorted out the influx and the barracks began to fill.
Once you were assigned and reported to your permanent company you were interviewed by the company commander and then delivered to the tender mercies of the First Sergeant. Everything went downhill from that point.
You turned out for your first company formation and at its conclusion were turned over to the platoon sergeants. The next command invariably took you to the barber shop, where you could get any kind of haircut you wanted as long as it was GI.
In their turn the company officers and first sergeants searched out the men who might fill the bill as acting NCOs. Anyone with even a smattering of military training or whose record showed leadership in some field was tabbed.
It was done without the aid of costly, scientific research, and long before the development of computer technology. Basic information and precious common sense ruled-and it worked!
The 86th still was but a skeleton of its future self. Nevertheless, "Recon" was the mechanized version of Cavalry, its officers wore the crossed sabers of that Arm, and a time-honored role of Cavalry was to provide the "dash" and "color" for ceremonials.
So it was that when the Governor of neighboring Oklahoma was to pay an official visit to nearby Fort Smith, the 86th was tabbed to do the honors.
Again, driver-trained manpower was the problem. (Even a veteran mess sergeant who protested that he'd never driven any kind of motor vehicle was given a quick course and, to inculcate confidence, was chosen to pilot his company commander's scout car. Perspiring profusely, he came through with honors).
In immaculate vehicles and immaculate uniforms, the bob-tailed battalion met the Governor at the State Line, delivered him safely to his hotel, properly impressed the citizenry with the might of the 6th Armored Division and returned to the motor pool with vehicles, personnel and dignity intact.
Meantime, an important need was to make a variegated mass of individuals feel that the Army was not an amorphous ogre but a body of human beings with a common purpose; that they were regarded both as individuals--not just "bodies"--and the makings of a cohesive team. Also, that they had a "home" at last.
From out of the rough-hewn features of now - Maj. Al Harris peered warm, friendly eyes as he, with Chaplain Dale in tow, visited each new-born company in turn. In conversational tones and with a relaxed manner, he had each mass of fledgling soldiers seat themselves as comfortably as they could in a shady spot, and talk about what the 86th Recon was, what it was intended to be, and how they fitted into the picture.
A way of relaxing tensions and anxieties was to seek out amateur show biz talent, producing invariably at least one man in every outfit who could play a "geetar".
Chaplain Dale's approach to looking after the spiritual needs of the newcomers was not to sermonize, but to take a down-to-earth slant on pertinent points. Fully aware of a healthy young manís basic (or "base") instincts, his advice as to resistance to temptation was to keep in mind a cryptic acronym; "KPIP".
With the start of basic training began a period of "make-do" and improvisation. There were equipment shortages and substitutions; M-l rifles instead of the newly adopted carbines the TOEs and field manuals called for; open-top M3 scout cars instead of the glamorous-appearing M8 armored cars that were in the distant future. Short-barreled 75mm pack howitzers pedestal-mounted in halftracks (and just two of them, at that, for the whole battalion) where each Recon company rated three sophisticated assault guns. But "no sweat" --companies borrowed back and forth. Calisthenics and double-timing that had left sedentary citizens gasping became "a breeze". Flabby muscles hardened; blubber melted off the overfed; solid meat grew on the frames of the underfed.
The first payday produced some surprises for the unsuspecting. Preoriented as to the time-honored ritual of approaching the pay table, each soldier found the reverse of a production line awaiting his new-found riches. Insistent hands, in turn, extracted their toll for such "advances" as PX items, movie tickets, the barber's ministrations, laundry. As a grand climax, awaiting each man as he progressed into the adjacent supply room was a civilian merchant behind tables loaded with the Armored Forceís own distinctive high-crowned overseas caps. None of those motley, flimsy, shapeless leftovers from "The Great War" for the Armored Force! Its "Go to Hell" cap was intended to mark members of an elite group. It would be worn one finger's breadth above the left eyebrow and one finger's breadth above the left ear, no matter that the book prescribed just the opposite. The crown would run in a straight horizontal line, fore-and-aft (even maintained just so by a bent length of wire coat hanger or piece of stiff cardboard).
Woe betide the Armored Force man who'd tuck the cap down into the crown, forming front and rear "tits". THAT was the "Go to Hell" cap; the visored type was verboten.
The popular belief was that every American teen-age youth was a natural-born mechanical genius; that the average 17-year-old could tinker with cars and turn a decrepit junker into a functioning "heap." Not so! It turned out that many of the big city boys hadn't been exposed to such opportunities and experience and it showed when we crammed inexperienced recruits into M3s and put each in turn behind the wheel. It was a harrowing experience for their instructors, seated alongside, as the lumbering vehicles shuddered and jerked amid a clashing of gears, weaving perilously from one road shoulder to the other. All survived the experience; some mastered the principles; a few qualified to pilot nothing more complicated than the man-propelled, two-wheeled company ration cart.
Division policy had confined all recruits to the Post for the first six weeks in training, so that they'd at least look and carry themselves like soldiers on their first public appearance. Unquestionably, some found a way to beat the system. For the most part, however, the great majority more-or-less patiently awaited their official liberation--and quickly won the hearts of the good people of Fort Smith.
One regrettable episode in this breaking-in period was the loss of some good, seasoned soldiers. These were men who had been born in, or had relatives within, enemy or enemy-occupied territories. The generally understood rationale of this War Department policy was that such soldiers, if captured, could be blackmailed by threats of dire action against their loved ones; so, they were transferred from combatant to Zone of the Interior assignments,
There had been other losses, too; some of the original officers were promoted to different assignments within or outside the battalion. Some commissioned and enlisted personnel responded to calls for volunteers for assignment to active theaters of operation, or for Airborne or Ranger units. Officer Candidate School took away others.
And with the completion of basic training in June came the first large influx of brand-new second lieutenants, recent graduates of college ROTC or OCS.
The 86th really hit the jackpot with the first group from OCS, which included Steve C. Bohunicky, James Crutchfield, James F. Delaney, Frederick H. Eickhoff and Donald L. Tillemans. Lt. Bohunicky became squadron S-3 before he was killed in action, Lt. Eickhoff became CO of Troop A and succeeded Lt. Bohunicky as S-3, Lt. Tillemans became CO of Troop B and eventually the squadron executive officer, Lt. Delaney became commander of Troop E and Lt. Crutchfield became the squadron maintenance officer.
With quiet, warm understanding but real authority, Lt. Col. Quill had drawn his associates into a harmonious team that was more than ready to warmly welcome the new crop of young officers and move on to more advanced training. Tactical training exposed the troops to the rolling hills, the small streams, the quiet woods of the further reaches of the reservation. Now could be experienced the relationship between mortar sections and scout car sections, between reconnaissance companies and tank company; the actual functions of voice radio and CW; how chow was provided and battalion maintenance served in the field.
Considering the hazards of ordinary civilian life, it is remarkable that--barring periods of actual combat--life and limb were safer in the 86th despite the firing of thousands of rounds of rifle, pistol, machine gun, mortar and tank gun firing and the operation of thin-skinned and armored vehicles. Yet, some accidents were inevitable. One such tragedy took place during this period when the battalion was traversing a narrow dirt road through dark woods, under blackout. A light tank being guided across a crude, single-lane bridge veered onto the unsupported edge of the planks and tumbled sideways just a few feet into a small, mud-bottomed, stream. Trapped standing in the turret hatch, the tank commander died under the overturned vehicle.
It was in this same period that the 86th got more and more exposure to its neighbors, the 25th Engineers, and to the Tank, Artillery, Signal, Medical, Infantry, Ordnance and other units that comprised the 6th Armored Division. "Combined arms" exercises provided preparation for the next major phase; Louisiana Maneuvers.
In marked contrast to the trek from Fort Knox, the march to the Pelican State showed off a full-fledged and confident 86th. There, too, was eyepopping exposure to the growing might of the American Army; other Divisions and, everywhere, every variety of specialized supporting Corps and Army units. It was a "BIG" show!"
Like all large-scale maneuvers, it was marked by some "hurry up and wait," while unseen masses of men were being moved for tactical purposes known only by the upper echelon. But it was giving invaluable training to commanders and staffs, to communications personnel, to maintenance and supply people--to every last individual who was learning how to live and function militarily in a constantly changing environment.
Both tracked and wheeled vehicles bogged down in swamps and the troops learned how to get them out. Chiggers got under the skin. During the day the heat would oppress; during the night damp chill would settle in. New straddle trenches and garbage pits were dug and marked with unit identification and date; old ones were dug up and ransacked by skinny, wild razorback hogs.
It was a time when "bike" riders on heavy "Harleys" or "Indians" provided a communications link, passing written messages to, or receiving them from, commanders in moving vehicles via a split stick. It was a hazardous practice, especially on gravel or dirt roads, in mud, or in darkness. The 86th "lost" one such messenger and his mount during the maneuvers, and "found" him only after return to Camp Chaffee. A phone call from Ordnance to battalion headquarters inquired as to when someone was going to pick up one of the 86th's bikes that had been repaired.
In condensed version, the story as finally reconstructed from that call was that the rider had come to an Engineer treadway floating bridge--the type employing a kind of narrow I-beam, the edges of which provided flanges just wide enough apart to guide tank tracks or the tires of other vehicles. It was difficult to walk alongside and push a heavy bike on those beams, so the 86th messenger chose to ride, took a spill and landed in a hospital, the Ordnance battalion retrieving the bike.
It wasn't long afterward that a TOE change dropped motorcycles from all units except the Military Police.
A relatively short period back home at Camp Chaffee was followed by a course of mild orientation for a new experience; desert training. That was logical; the geography of the war with Japan didn't lend itself to employment of division-size masses of Armor, but North Africa did--with a vengeance! The "Desert Fox", Erwin Rommel, and the British had been tangling there and, even with our brief Ft. Knox comrades of the 1st Armored Division becoming "blooded" there, the desert gave promise of being the only active theater for Armor for some time to come.
Be that as it may, to the popular mind the desert connoted intense heat and thirst. So, we were conditioned to adjust to those conditions. Long dismounted marches with tight enforcement of water discipline and monitored consumption of salt tablets to counter dehydration became the routine.
Experts conducted classes in tying-down and blocking vehicles for rail movement. All hands turned-to with timber blocking, coils of heavy wire and hammers and secured our vehicles on flat cars at the Fort Smith railroad yards. Kitchen crews secured their field ranges onto the floors of baggage cars. Spaces were assigned in standard Pullmans--two men to a lower berth, one to an upper.
Once the wheels started turning time virtually stood still save for the kitchen crews and KPs, toting their big pots of chow down the aisle of one car after another, ladling contents into mess kits and canteen cups. Occasional stops gave welcome opportunity to stretch stiff legs. Well out into the Plains States, winding gradually up the endless slope towards the Continental Divide, passengers could see, miles and miles ahead, the smoke from a half-dozen similar trains, spaced out miles apart and all headed West. Passing trains were few and far between; occasionally, ours would "take siding" and let a heavily laden trainload of vital war materials thunder past with as many as two monstrous locomotives at the head, a couple cut into the middle and another couple pushing from the rear.
Then one afternoon our train was switched off the main line and rolled down a branch. Close to the tracks, headed in the opposite direction, clouds of dust kicked up by their tracks, a column of tanks pitched and rolled over the undulating sands. We knew we were about "there"--wherever "there" was! Soon we were to learn about places like Rice and Freda and Grommet, Needles and Yuma. But now it was dark; we were in the middle of nowhere. Vehicles were rolled down the ramp at an unloading dock and parked; officers and men were guided to a place where they could unroll sleeping bags or blankets, fit their contours into the sand and drop off into slumber under the stars--a slumber broken now and then by a shrieking soldier who discovered a snake seeking warm company.
Daybreak introduced a new and strange experience in a new and strange environment. Far away lay a horizon, marked to the North by treeless, jagged mountains of a varying hue; elsewhere, sparse desert greenery that, due to perspective and long, gradual slopes, blended into a variety of pastel shades. All-pervading was the wind and the strange, pungent odor of greasewood.
Open space quickly was transformed into the usual orderly, military array of canvas. Sand, of course, was everywhere. After some weeks truckload after truckload of plasterboard materialized from a gypsum processing plant some miles away; laid on smoothed-out sand, it floored the tents after a fashion. Troops got into the habit of shaking out their boots in the evening to evict possible desert denizens, and to secure small belongings from larcenous desert rats.
They learned to drive slowly within the populated area--especially near the kitchens--to hold down the dust; elsewhere, to head across the sands or beside the roads, few paved. The directive was to stay off the roads, presumably to save them from the wear-and-tear of tracked vehicles, or to get us accustomed to cross-country driving, or both. Whatever the reason, it eventually took its toll in broken springs and other vehicular damage.
It was hot when we arrived, and for a few weeks thereafter, and the burlap-screened Quartermaster-serviced open air shower facility a few miles from camp enjoyed great patronage--but only for a few weeks. October, we found, brought its own brand of dry but freezing weather. A No. 10 can of water set on top of a stove sufficed for a washcloth bath. Canvas water bags hung on a peg outside the tent became solid ice overnight. It was a wise practice to start the day in multiple layers of clothing and shed gradually as the sun climbed higher. The knit, tiny-visored skull caps designed to be worn under the helmet liner were cozy, with the ear flaps turned down.
Hissing gasoline lanterns provided light for friendly card games or private reading during the night hours. Or, beer bottle in hand, one could squat on the hard sand and watch a movie shown on a fabric screen that billowed in the wind, producing a funhouse mirror-like image of the heroes and heroines, villains and villainesses. And woe unto the GI who tavern keeper Ray Rahn caught throwing away an empty beer bottle.
"We had to turn in a case of empty bottles for every full case we got," a mellowed Rahn explained at a later date.
We learned to punch nail holes in empty cartridge cans, set them in holes scooped in the desert's surface, pour a little gasoline into the hole and light a flickering fire that would warm a can of C ration (the K was yet to come) or brew a canteen cupful of instant coffee on the home-made stove.
We also learned to bury a case of beer in the sand beneath the tent floor and let it chill overnight.
In late afternoon we could observe the subtly changing colors of the distant mountains as the sun set; at night, feel that we could pluck a handful of unnaturally bright, shining stars from a sky that appeared to be within armís reach.
We reconnoitered in all directions; dipped south to Yuma, crossed the muddy Colorado and fanned northward, up the Arizona side. In search of unmapped routes across the rugged hills we stamped into the earth our own vehicle tracks to add to the maze of those left by prospectors and by thousands of other GI vehicles that had preceded us.
Christmas came, and with it a memorable meal to which increasing winds added an unwelcome ingredient; sand in the turkey, sand in the potatoes, sand in the gravy, sand in the butter, sand in the coffee.
The division's many Catholics, and many of their friends, enjoyed Midnight Mass in the desert setting and, with colors flying and a band playing, closed the ceremony with the singing of "The Star-Spangled Banner."
And who can forget the Hollywood show staged by Rosalind Russell, who brought with her Red Skelton, Pat O'Brien and a host of other stars? The irrepressible Skelton stole the show when, appropriately costumed, he announced; "Hi, fellows. I'm Santa Claus, and look at all the "bags" I brought you." He was referring to the 250 lovely young ladies--starlets, secretaries, etc.--who had come along to dance with the troops on a portable dance floor installed on the desert sands and surrounded by tanks. Another thrill was Pat O'Brien's rendition of his famous Knute Rockne pep talk to the Notre Dame football team.
Now came large-scale maneuvers against a Motorized Infantry Division. Who won? Who remembers, and what difference does it make? The important thing is that we gained more experience, more confidence, more competence.
Following maneuvers came a switch to a new base camp--a move of about 25 miles that provided a few amenities such as closed showers and latrines; otherwise, the same familiar desert. Spring was coming, the days were warming, and blossoms began appearing on the all-surrounding delicate desert vegetation. In but another short time came another and short-notice change. Our desert training was completed; now, pack up for movement to Camp Cooke, along the coast north of Santa Barbara.
The Advance Party from the newer outfit that was to take our place wouldn't accept deadlined vehicles--and there were plenty of those as the result of months of rugged service over rough terrain. Maintenance personnel hounded division for parts that had long been on order and division hounded someone else; truckloads arrived. "Grease monkey" or not, any man who could manipulate a wrench was detailed to help get our rolling hardware in shape. Leaving tracked and other armored vehicles behind for our successors, we moved by rail with what was left.
The predecessor 5th Armored Division had left for other parts before our arrival; we settled in where they had been. Once again we were to live in reasonably civilized facilities--with a difference.
Ever since Pearl Harbor the Pacific Coast had feared a possible Japanese invasion. Blackout was in effect. There had been an air raid alarm in Los Angeles--unwarranted it later was determined. And a Japanese submarine had surfaced and thrown a few shells onto an oil dock along the coast.
So, defense positions were marked off and each company took its turn at "alert" status, which meant confinement to the company area, vehicles and men with combat ammunition loads and preparedness to move out on a moment's notice. In the cantonment area nightfall was accompanied by a dark chill, and frequently fog, that accentuated the gloom of blackout conditions.
But the alert was hardly more than a modest inconvenience after life on the desert, so Camp Cooke was a veritable paradise for the 86thers--cold beer, hot showers, luxury items at the PX where pretty girls and juke boxes blared out the latest hits, clean clothes, sheets on the beds and a regular mess hall where the cooks could do their thing. In short, all of the goodies that go along with garrison life.
Not the least of those were the passes to Lompoc and Santa Maria on the short haul and such exciting destinations as Santa Barbara, Los Angeles and San Francisco on weekends. True, many of the troops had gotten to L. A. while on the desert, but travelling in convoy in 2 1/2-ton trucks and taking the train from Riverside or San Bernardino wasn't quite the same. Nor was the freezing drive home on Sunday nights.
On May 17 an honor escort from Company B participated in the program as Maj. Gen. William H. H. Morris, the division commander, departed to take over as commanding general of the II Armored Corps. Two weeks later, Brig. Gen. Robert W. Grow, immediately to become a major general, arrived from the 1Oth Armored Division to assume command of the 6th.
A hard-nosed cavalryman and pioneer of Armored warfare who had served as operations officer under Maj. Gen. George S. Patton Jr. in the 2nd Armored Division, Gen. Grow scrapped a lot of the spit-and-polish and escalated the training program at all levels.
The 86th was swept up in the acceleration and as part of it was required to qualify every man in the outfit in swimming tests. The troops were transported to Santa Barbara for this purpose, with mixed blessings and curses.
Wallace Broussard, a platoon sergeant with Company C at the time, recalls what he refers to as the "Santa Barbara Ordeal"
"All experienced swimmers were to swim the length of the Santa Barbara pool with full clothing and rifle. The inexperienced were given instructions and when judged qualified to swim the length were dropped in the pool and told to swim. In many cases they were plucked out of the pool by supervisory personnel only because they hadn't learned to swim yet. It was back to the basics and other attempts were made until every member of the battalion had passed the test.
"The units were bivouacked in a city park, near the swimming pool and the Pacific Ocean. Pup tents were erected and everyone lived on the premises. However, quite a few of the boys met their Waterloo in Santa Barbara. I remember that our trooper Clifford Hammonds met Mary Ellen Greer, a transplant from Johnstown, Pa., whom he later was to marry. It turned out that Mary Ellen had seen platoon sergeant William M. (Bill) Johnson play minor league baseball in Johnstown.
"The stay in Santa Barbara was approximately one week, but some of the boys will never forget it."
A date that also will live long in memory is September 20, 1943, when the Armored Force went to the triangular division concept. The impact on the 86th was that it was redesignated as the 86th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron Mechanized and its original five companies were expanded to seven.
Col. Harris, who had left the 86th to receive his promotion as executive officer of the 69th Armored Regiment and then had attended Command and General Staff School, had returned September 16 and assumed command.
Key members of his staff in the newly designated squadron included Maj. George M. Gaither, who had served as acting CO following Col. Quill's departure for the II Armored Corps on June 28, as executive officer; Maj. Harry C. Brindle from the 69th Armored Regiment as S-3; Capt. William U. Kennon as S-2; Capt. Romain B. Robinson as S-4; 1st Lt. Steve C. Bohunicky as assistant S-3; 1st Lt. James M. Crutchfield as motor officer; 1st Lt. B. Harris Sterling as communications officer and S-3 air; 2nd Lt. Edwin A. Friduss as adjutant; 2nd Lt. Jack Creager as liaison officer; Capt. Thomas E. Lee as surgeon; 1st Lt. Wilson W. Boggan as chaplain, and WOJG Joseph E. Benoit as personnel officer.
Headquarters Company was redesignated as Headquarters, Headquarters and Service Troop, under command of Capt. Robert M. Cuming; Company A became Troop A under Capt. Frederick H. Eickhoff; Company B became Troop B under Capt. Donald L. Tillemans; the 68th Armored Reconnaissance Company became Troop C under Capt. Daniel C. Moore; the 69th Armored Reconnaissance Company became Troop D under Capt. Charles Roodman; Company C became Troop E, an assault gun troop, under Capt. James F. Delaney, and Company D became Company F (light tanks) under Capt. Harold L. Hughes.
The main thrust of the Reorganization was to bring in two new troops from the Armored regiments and spread the talent from old Company C around the four reconnaissance troops with the exception of administrative and assault gun personnel, who were supplemented by assault gun personnel from other troops in Troop E.
Capt. Delaney, who had attended military school and served in the New York National Guard before entering the Army, was a natural choice to command Troop E, since at the time he was the only company-grade officer in the squadron with experience in direct fire.
Prior to the reorganization there had been an assault gun section in each troop. Under the new system all of the assault guns were concentrated in one unit, which like the light tank company could be used in numerous support capacities not only for the 86th but also for the combat commands, Infantry, Artillery and other entities not previously anticipated. The troop had to be trained to the point of complete capability of firing both directly and indirectly, particularly the indirect fire support role, which could be most effective.
"We were a highly mobile, fast-moving unit and we did train a very highly skilled group of individuals who were quite proficient in performing their duties," Capt. Delaney said.
The training pace picked up considerably for the entire squadron after the reorganization as the tank and assault gun crews, scout and mortar sections and other elements sharpened their skills in preparation for things to come.
Christmas brought a pleasant respite when a bevy of beautiful girls from Hollywood (and you had better believe that ALL of them were beautiful at that point) joined the troops for dinner and a day of relaxation in the squadron area.
That, of course, should have been the tip-off, but it wasn't until a division formation on December 31 that the word came down; we were on the way.
There were still those doubting Thomases who were vocalizing "dry run", but late in January the 86th, along with the rest of the division, entrained for Camp Shanks, N. Y., which all of the New York and New Jersey boys knew was a port of embarkation. The last diehards finally got the message when a dockside band piped them aboard the U.S.S. Anne Arundel as they answered to their surname with their first name, middle initial and Army serial number. The date was February 10, 1944.
The rigors of the sea voyage have been documented by George F. Hofmann in his excellent history, "The Super Sixth", for those who might need refreshing on the subject. Suffice it to say here that when the Liberty ship docked in Cardiff, Wales, on February 23 few tears were shed over the parting.
The 86th was stationed in the vicinity of Blockley, a sleepy hamlet in Gloucestershire surrounded by villages and towns with names like Chipping Camden, Chipping Norton, Stow on the Wold and Moreton in Marsh in addition to the better known Broadway, Evesham and Stratford on Avon.
Headquarters was set up in a veritable mansion in the heart of Blockley, complete with a bathroom on the second floor for "Officers", a water closet on the ground floor for "Sergeants" and an outdoor latrine for "Other Ranks" Obviously, the class-conscious British Army had occupied the premises before us. And, needless to say, the class distinctions were generally ignored by headquarters personnel.
Unfortunately, the squadron had to share Blockley's limited number of pubs and young ladies with a group from a nearby U.S. Army hospital, complete with the only MPs in town. After a few incidents in which the MPs threw their weight and nightsticks in the direction of 86thers, Col. Harris was persuaded that the problem could be resolved by appointing our own MPs. So, brassards were borrowed from division and the squadron's boxing team took to the streets to dispense a new kind of law and order. We didn't see much more of the hospital boys.
It was a new way of life for the 86thers, who suddenly found themselves drinking mild and bitters (warm, yet), eating dark bread with every meal and wearing British-made slate-colored wool sox instead of the familiar OD cotton hose from the U.S. You did your washing and shaving from outdoor cold water racks and for more serious functions you were introduced to the infamous "Honey buckets" and a grade of paper that would have made a Sears Roebuck catalog seem like Kleenex.
Liquor, wine and beer were strictly rationed and the home folks, who made a half keg last a week, weren't too happy when the GIs moved in and demolished a week's supply in a night or two. The word got around, however, and our boys learned to play the game. Their reward was a wonderful rapport with some very remarkable, courageous people and the beginning of friendships that have endured to this day. The GIs learned to throw darts, bowl on the green and play a fascinating game called "Shove Ha'penny", in which half pennies are propelled with the heel of the hand into marked areas slightly larger than the coins. They also learned to drive on the wrong side of the road.
Perhaps more important, the troops got to visit Stratford on Avon and see William Shakespeare's comedies, histories and tragedies at the American Center as well as punt on the Avon, tour the Anne Hathaway Cottage and drop in on any number of pubs.
Then abruptly one night in mid-July the 86th packed up for good and shattered the tranquility of the sleepless village as motors roared and tracks ground their way toward the embarkation area at Southampton.
There the men learned how to handle themselves boarding invasion craft and all too soon they found themselves applying the knowledge as they set out across the English Channel for France.
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