Veterans Voices: Reflections of a soldier

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Bill Thomas

Some people ask; most people refrain from asking, “What is a Soldier’s life really like?”

Most Military Veterans are reluctant to talk about their time in service.

Too many have passed on to a higher command.  Many other male and female veterans are physically and/or mentally unable to tell about their life experiences.

Those are the primary reasons it has been a difficult task for me to keep writing the “Veterans Voices” column, besides my physical inability to conduct personal interviews.  I’m a wheelchair driver—lame excuse.

Personally speaking, I enlisted in the U.S. Army along with two long-time buddies, Bud Martin and Bill Perry, whose names came up in the military draft, alphabetically, before Thomas. We were all born in Michigan and were told we would all be assigned to the same Army unit.

Martin was sent to an infantry division, and died in Belgium in the Battle of the Bulge.

Perry was sent to a Pacific air transport command, and died of a liver disease after driving a tourist bus to Kansas.  I was ordered into the 257th Field Artillery Battalion.  I served from Feb. 8, 1943, to Oct. 25, 1945 in North Africa, Italy, France, Germany, and Austria, compiling 565 days of combat time during World War II.

My basic training began in Camp Gordon in Georgia.

I trained to become the gunner on a 105 mm artillery gun.

I set the calibrations and pulled the lanyard that fired the gun.  Some months later, 24 other guys and I volunteered to join the 938th Field Artillery Battalion as they had just come off maneuvers and were scheduled to go oversea.

They needed 25 more men to fulfill their complement of men. Naïve as we were at 19, we thought the war would end before we would be in it.

We sailed on an Italian luxury liner that was converted into a troop ship for

6,000 men, but we had 8,000 aboard.  We tried to sleep in hammocks that were barely a shoulder apart on a deck that was three decks below sea level¬–with no air-conditioning. Our ship was one ship in a sixty ships convoy.

I was extra lucky on the second day aboard when a sailor, Steve Krewick, who I knew from high school, was serving food in the chow-line.

He whispered, “Meet me on top-deck at 10 o’clock near the end of the lifeboats, and bring all your gear.”  Steve brought a T-bone steak, a slew of crispy potatoes, a slice of apple pie, and a spoon from the officers’ dining hall.

Every night for the next three weeks, Steve treated me to well-prepared steaks and chops, desserts, and more while we were at sea, crossing the Atlantic Ocean.  I slept on top deck.  I was amazed as I saw millions of stars shining so bright, especially on the darkest nights.  I had to roll up my bunk-roll every morning to get out the way when sailors swobbed the deck.

In the second week, while sailing along the coastline of Portugal, somewhat known as “Torpedo Junction” because of the area that German submarines had torpedoed many Allies’ ships, one of our ship’s boilers exploded and many of us thought we had been torpedoed.

Three sailors were killed.  Early on the next morning, most everyone on board stood “at attention” while a bugler played “TAPS” as the bodies of the three sailors, encased in a wooden crate, positioned under a large American Flag slid ceremonially overboard.

The coffin was also heavily weighted so it would sink to the bottom of the ocean.

I hoped I’d never see another burial-at-sea.

Many hours later, our ship was able to sail again, this time in a straight-forward direction instead of the zig-zag formation of the convoy.

By mid-afternoon of the next day, we caught up to the convoy and zig-zagged into our original position in the convoy.

It was a wondrous sight from my vantage view on deck to watch the sailors guide our ship into position using semaphore flags.

We sailed past The Rock of Gibraltar into the Mediterranean Sea and landed at Oran, North Africa and trained there for a few weeks until we sailed over to Naples, Italy.

Minutes later, as we disembarked, two enemy planes strafed our ship.

Luckily, two Italian students quickly guided us into the basement of their college that was used as a bomb-shelter.

In Italy, we began to fight the German Army all the way up to Mont Casino where the Germans had dug in deeply.

Our American Fifth Army and our British allies had only advanced a short distance in several weeks.  Our generals planned for an attack on the other side of the Germans.

The Port of Anzio was selected for an amphibious landing as a surprise attack to the enemy.  Our artillery unit landed on January 28, 1944, but all our combat units should have moved inland more quickly.

For the two days we lingered waiting for the unloading of ammunition and food supplies, the Germans brought in their troops from Northern Italy and South France.  They took the high ground.  We were like the fish in a fishbowl.

The Germans were so determined to push us off the beachhead in February.

They fired hundreds of rounds of ammo at us daily for three days and nights.  Normally, an artillery shell is fired in an arch-shape.  We alerted our infantries to get down as low as possible.

Each of our artillery guns lowered their tubes and fired our shells point-blank about 100 feet above the infantry.

As an artillery forward observer, I watched through my BC Scope and saw many hundreds of enemy bodies flying in all directions, some dead, others wounded.  We fought vigorously and relentlessly for over 75 to 80 hours, until the Germans retreated.

This was one of our toughest battles.

Both sides fought valiantly, day and night, for over four months until we Americans and our allies rolled into Rome, Italy on June 4, 1944.

During all our 565 days of combat time when the ground was wet, muddy, or snowy, we sat on the steel part of our helmets instead of chairs to eat whatever meal our cook could prepare.

When in snowy conditions, we bedded down for sleep by scooping out a space to lay our bed, rolled in, climbed in, and covered ourselves with snow for insulation to ward off any prevailing wind.

There is so much more to tell about the life of a combat soldier, and in writing this article brings back so many memories; some very pleasant, some horrifying, some very sad, that I’ll end here.

Bill Thomas of Rowntree Gardens in Stanton is a Veteran of World War II, and Past Commander of VFW Post 4048, and American Legion Post 857. Contact Bill, vvbthomasvets@gmail.com.

Veterans Voices: Reflections of a soldier