Friday, December 23, 2011

1945 Christmas Menu, WWII Belgium

William Kelly was a friend of my grandfather from the 304th Port Company. William saved a 1945 menu, which was given to GIs on leave in Belgium for Christmas. His daughter Lorraine was nice enough to scan it so I could share it here. I love the illustration on the front (check out the rabbit and turkey in the pots!).

Monday, December 19, 2011

Cortland's Christmas, Antwerp 1944

517th Port Battalion guards posing on the snowy top of Tampico Flats apartment building, December, 1944. Photo courtesy of Jack Haren. His father John Haren is pictured on the left.

Around this time in 2010 my grandfather Cortland gave my sister a short account of his Christmas in 1944. This was after I published the book, so I'm happy to post the story here.

"Every night I was in Antwerp we slept on straw... like Jesus," Cortland chuckled. "On Christmas Eve we had a service led by the chaplain in a building with no windows [Tampico Flats]. It was happy until we were getting bombed. The bombs were dropping and the chaplain would get quiet and would hold his breath, but then he kept going. I was too scared to remember the message. I was so scared I didn't know my own name. Some people were sad. They'd rather be home—me included. We didn't get bombed on Christmas, and we had turkey. Roosevelt said everyone should get turkey if they could. The turkey was better than what we'd been eating."

As a member of the 519th Port Battalion, Cortland had been serving in Antwerp, Belgium since departing Normandy in mid-November. He was there to unload and guard supplies for the US Army. For most of this time the Germans were launching V1 and V2 rockets into the port city. During the Battle of the Bulge (December 16th to January 25th) there was a surge in the number of rocket attacks. The 519th and another port battalion were stationed in an apartment building by the docks. After months in the field they were thankful to be sheltered indoors, yet there were still discomforts. The window glass had all been shattered by explosions, the rooms lacked mattresses, and there was the ever-present anxiety of a direct hit by a v-bomb.

In 2010 and 2009 I wrote two other posts about Christmas for the port battalion men in WWII Belgium: A GI's Christmas in WWII Belgium, 1944 and GI Christmas Party in Antwerp, 1945

P.S. I looked through my National Archives records and found this quote in the 494th Port Battalion's historic report. It refers to Christmas, 1943 in Liverpool, England:
"The 494th Port Battalion in conjunction with the 490th Port Battalion were hosts to the British children in a pre-Christmas party which was enjoyed by the children as well as both battalions. The gala occasion took place a few days before Christmas."

Monday, November 21, 2011

The M1 Carbine, by Leroy Thompson

As Army service troops, the men in my grandfather's port battalion were all issued the M1 Carbine. To better understand his war experience I have been meaning to I read-up on the weapon he carried. Lucky for me Osprey Publishing just published a book on the M1 this week.

Thompson's book The M1 Carbine details the rifle's use from WWII to Korea to Vietnam. My interest is limited to WWII, which is the main focus of the book. The M1 Carbine was developed specifically for troops who's hands were mostly occupied with non-combat tasks, but were still in a combat zone. It was thought these men needed a weapon more powerful than a pistol, but not as bulky as the standard infantryman's rifle, the M1 Garand.

The Army invited weapons manufacturers to submit designs based on a set of criteria for this light rifle. Thompson details the process and shares some interesting observations. For instance, one of the several companies that was awarded a contract to produce the carbines during the war was the Underwood company. So, a company clerk in the field may have typed reports on an Underwood typewriter, while his Underwood carbine leaned against the desk!

The book goes on to describes the use of the carbine in battle. It was employed most notably by Army paratroopers in Europe who benefited from the weapon's compact size and low weight. In the Pacific the M1 carbine was valued for it's resistance to corrosion, and it's size made it well-suited to close jungle fighting. I especially appreciated page 39 which discusses the M1 Carbine's role in the Army engineer companies. All the port companies taking part in the Normandy invasion were attached to Engineer Special Brigades. Men like my grandfather unloaded supplies with the M1 Carbine slung on their backs.

In addition to numerous photographs Osprey adds two specially commissioned double-full-page color illustrations and a third single-full-page illustration by historical artist Peter Dennis.

Here's a shot of my Grandpa Corty in Normandy posing with his M1 Carbine. During the chaos of D-Day my grandfather actually lost his carbine and spent the day with an M1 Garand. He said that during the November 1944 train ride to Antwerp someone knocked over some jars of jam that were shelved above their stack of guns. The carbines were literally "jammed." He fired his carbine only once, while guarding a supply train heading to the front lines in Belgium. That anecdote is described in my book.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

A Short History of the 494th Port Battalion in WWII

After speaking with veteran Dr. James Baker I requested the 494th Port Battalion historic report from the National Archives. I got a roster of men in the battalion, which is unusual, and I got a five-page written history detailing the time in the UK. Frustratingly, it cuts off just before the Normandy invasion! I would have been very interested to read what the battalion officers wrote down about that event and the time in Europe. Luckily, my conversations with James and his memoir can fill in the blanks.

In the UK
The battalion crossed the Atlantic aboard the HMT Queen Elizabeth, arriving in Gaurock, Scotland on October 19, 1943. The next day the 494th was transported by train to Maghull, Lancashire in England. The men were quartered in Deyes Lane Camp and Poverty Lane Camp. The companies all moved to Race Course Camp, Manchester, Lancashire in February, 1944. They worked the docks in the port of Liverpool until March, 1944.

You can read a fully detailed description in the pages bellow. In addition to a report of the ships unloaded these pages talk about the troops' interaction with the British. For instance, men from the 494th joined Liverpool's local Home Guard unit for a Memorial Day parade. Along with the 490th Port Battalion, the 494th co-hosted a children's Christmas party. (click for a larger view):

In Normandy
The 494th Port Battalion was attached to the 6th Engineer Special Brigade and landed on Omaha Beach in the first wave of the Normandy invasion on D+1: June 7, 1944. Read James' account of that day. In 1944 the Army Transportation Association Journal published an article "158 Days of Hell" by Captain Albert Simmons. He mentions the 494th:

"It is said of Port Battalions that they can't ever win a war but they sure as hell can lose it! One such Port Battalion, the 494th, was operating on Omaha Beach in June of 1944. On D-plus 1 the 494th was the first to hit the beach. [Earlier in the day they sat out there in the [English] Channel a few thousand feet off the shores of France, waiting, pleading, begging for the chance to go to work. And then they got it! They started discharging cargo that day, and on D-plus 158 they were still going strong.

Yeah! They are a pretty tired bunch of men right now--off loading thousands of thousands of tons of precious cargo [most by hand] every minute of every hour of every day, twenty-four hours a day for 158 days straight! [Can you imagine] standing out there in the black of an invasion night, with Jerry overhead, and tracer bullets cutting a beautiful, horrible pattern of death around you? You are seeing, feeling, sensing, the hundreds of ships out there in the channel just off the beach, loaded with tanks, guns, ammunition, gasoline, oil, chow, trucks, jeeps, and all the supplies and implements of war? You know that you and your buddies will have to unload every last ton of it...

Yes, the GI's of the Infantry are facing quick and sudden death daily, but their admiration for what the Port Battalions did during those invasion nights is expressed in the words of one Infantry Division platoon sergeant just back from the front.

"God, that took guts."

When they left finally left Omaha it was quite peaceful; and they wonder what lies ahead. But what ever it is, they'll do it again. Successfully, because they are the best stevedore battalion ever activated, and because they've already done it once on Omaha Beach."

In a recent phone conversation 494th Port Battalion veteran Robert Robinson told me about a frightening encounter he experience within hours of first coming to shore. "We waded in, and went up the hill. We just flopped down 'cause it was getting late. I just dropped down under a tree, and I was sitting with all my equipment, all wet and tired. It just happened that a sniper was up in the tree. Naturally we couldn't see him because of the leaves." Robert expected that the Germans in the trees (there were a couple) were waiting until nightfall to make their escape. "Night approached and we didn't realize there was any danger. There was a field artillery unit nearby. They spied the Germans in the trees and started firing their guns. One fell right across my legs! The thing that saved me was I reached for his weapon and took it away." Robert unarmed the wounded German before who soon collapsed from his wound.

Attacks by German aircraft were an almost nightly occurrence for at a week or two after D-Day. James Baker explained the best way to dig a foxhole to avoid being shot by the incoming planes: "They'd have us lie straight [parallel to the coastline], because if they come strafing the beach if you're lying straight you have less chance of being hit than if you were crosswise. You could see the tracer bullets coming down, and they're hitting all around you, and you just pray your name was not on the next one."

In November of 1944 the 494th left Normandy for LeHavre, France where it would continue unloading supply ships until the end of the war.

P.S. The SS Inventor was the first supply ship unloaded in Liverpool. I'll list all the ship names mentioned in the hopes that ship enthusiasts find this post: It was followed by the SS Modera, the Liberty Ship SS Abraham Lincoln, SS Santa Barbara, SS Elmer A. Sperry, SS Tombocktou, SS Gateway City, SS Apshun, SSFR Stockton, SS Eugene O'Donnell, the Mahlon Pitney, the Sheridan, the H. Watterson, the William McKinley, the John Phillip Souza, the Samana, the Seapool, the Losado, the Clan Murdock, the M/C Progress, the Elijah White, the Scottish Monarch, the City of Christinia, the Charles Robinson, the James Wetmore, the Bendoran, the Hove, and the James Duncan.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

George Taylor of the 502nd Port Battalion

George Taylor (on left), William Downes, and Leonard R. Roane at Camp Kilmer in NJ in January 1946.

This month I found two articles about George Taylor. He was company carpenter serving in the 502nd Port Battalion. He speaks in this video and he is interviewed by the Culpeper, VA Star Exponent in this article.

I sent George a copy of my book and we talked today on the phone. He and several friends from his hometown of Culpeper, VA joined the 502nd Port Battalion in 1943. They trained at Camp Miles Standish, just as my grandfather's battalion had. While the 519th Port Battalion was in Bristol, George's 502nd was working up in Glasgow. He was surprised to hear that my grandfather's battalion was white. It's true that most of the Army Transportation Corps was made up of segregated black units, but there were some white comapnies as well (25% of the corps).

George's battalion hit Omaha Beach in the afternoon of June 6th. "We had to wade over dead bodies of the guys who didn't make it. The water was red with American blood." With German snipers, artillery attacks, and aerial bombing, the Normandy experience was sobering and dangerous for the support troops as well as the combat soldiers. There were some casualties, including the battalion commanding officer, L. Col. James T. Pierce.

He talked about how impressive it was to see all the ships, trucks, and supply activity on the beach. "The next day after D-Day the beach looked like New York harbor." As a company carpenter George constructed buildings and crated equipment for transit. After the Normandy beaches shut down supply work in the fall of 1944 his battalion moved on to LeHavre, France where they unloaded American supplies until the end of the war.

Friday, September 2, 2011

WWII Port Company Reunions

From September 22nd to 24th WWII veterans and their families will be attending the 1st Engineers Special Brigade Association reunion at The Hope Hotel at Wright Patterson Air Force Base, Dayton, Ohio. These former 1st ESB men served in Africa, Sicily, Italy, Normandy, Holland, Belgium, Germany, and even Japan. They have been meeting regularly since the war.

490th Port Battalion veteran Charles Sprowl attended this reunion back in 2007. The 490th was attached to the 1st ESB for the Normandy invasion. My grandfather didn't do much more than exchange letters and Christmas cards with his old Army buddies, but many of the other veterans I speak to frequently met each other at their own informal reunions. For several different WWII Army units I have come upon 1945/46 documents listing men with their home addresses. It seems that these were put together to that the GIs could keep in touch after the war.

The 2007 1st Engineer Special Brigade Reunion

304th Port Company reunion, 1995 in Madison, WI

A groups of friends from the 304th Port Company met every few years. My grandfather was in this same company, but he didn't know these guys. From left to right: Tom Gardner, Bob Calfee, Jack Shireman, Ray Sonoski, Dick Justice, Matt Marvin, Dave Weaver, and Bruce Kramlich. I have spoken to all but to two of these veterans.

(click photo to see large version)

Gaetano Benza sent me a most impressive photo of a 1948 reunion at the Hotel Piccadilly in Brooklyn. He served in the 279th Port Company, which was attached to my grandfather's 519th Port Battalion for the Utah Beach invasion. They had some very well attended reunions for years after the war.

Monday, August 29, 2011

High school history project coincidence

Back in April, 2011 I got an unexpected email from my 10th grade history teacher. She is now the librarian working at a different high school. A teacher there asked if she could find a copy of a book. It turns out the book they were after is my own Longshore Soldiers. Ms. Graney was surprised to see her former student's name as the author.

The history class was researching Pennsylvania men who had died during the Normandy invasion. One student chose Willard U. Begel of Lehighton, who had served in the 519th Port Battalion. I sent them a book, talked to the teacher and student over the phone, and sent them some photos. You can see the results of their research in their website, which just went live.

Willard Begel was in my grandfather's 304th Port Company. The 22-yr-old GI was killed during a June 15th bombing by German aircraft on Utah Beach. A 1st Engineer Special Brigade document references the attack (see image at left). Dave Weaver, another member of the 304th, knew Begel and had bunked with him in Boston. Weaver added more detail to the incident, saying that Begel and another GI were hit while taking cover in their foxhole. His body was laid to rest in Normandy American Cemetery (see photo below). A road at Utah beach was named after him, with several markers permanently posted in his honor (see bottom photo).

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Pranks in the battalion

I recently was sent a December 1943 order written by the commander of the 519th Port Battalion, Major Charles Nabors. Apparently pranks among the GIs were getting out of hand while in Boston. Click on the thumbnail at left to read the commander's warning. Too bad no specific pranks are described!

Monday, July 25, 2011

Civilian Conservation Corps: A Reunion and Materials in the Grems-Doolittle Library

There's going to be a reunion of Civilian Conservation Corps alumni in Schenectady on August 15th. The CCC employed thousands of out-of-work men during the Great Depression, building bridges, managing forests, running telephone lines, constructing dams, etc. What interests me is how this civilian organization unintentionally trained men for future roles in the US Army engineers during WWII (see my review of US Combat Engineer: 1941-45, by Gordon Rottman).

The Grems-Doolittle Library in Schenectady houses a sizable collection of CCC artifacts, photos, and other materials.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Lamar Parnell in the 303rd Port Company

Lamar Parnell was a member of the 303rd Port Company, 519th Port Battalion. His son recently found my blog and sent in these two great photos. They show his dad (above left) in camp at Utah Beach. I like how they tacked up that little "The Virgin Inn" sign above their hut door. I wonder if they cut that from something, or if they painted it themselves. For more info on the GI's scratch-built huts in Normandy, see my post Living Accommodations on the Normandy Beaches

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Headquarters, 494th Port Battalion roster

In my continuing research in to WWII port battalions I requested the National Archives' historic report of the 494th Port Battalion. Among the papers was a May 1945 list of men receiving the Individual Service Award of the Bronze Arrowhead for their part in the Normandy invasion. The list offers a near-complete roster of the men in the battalion. I'm reproducing the names here in the hopes that family members find dad or grandfather. I want connect people with the remarkable service of the WWII port companies.

HQ Officers
Maj. Donald E. Campbell ( took command on October 7, 1945) • 1st L. Earl P. Campbell (took command on November 27, 1945) • Capt. Uriah H. Hunter • WOJG Johnnie A. Jones • Maj. Ashford T. Jordan • Lt. Col. Walter L. McKee • Capt. David Ornstein • CWO Russel L. Patterson • Capt. Alvin B. Rubin (took command on December 6, 1945) • Edward J. Tetrauls (adjutant) • Maj. Paul L. Warner

HQ Enlisted Men
Lawrence P. Amedee • Eugene M. F. Bash • Otis E. Battles • Clarence C. Carter • Joseph T. Flagg • Earney M. Hargrove • Leonard Harris • Walter B. Hollis • William R. Jackson, Jr. • James A. Jeter • Herman A. Jones • Alfred C. McGee • Ralph H. Micks • William M. Perry • Thomas Newton, Jr. • Duronza H. Reeves • Richard Sawyers • James A Turner • Z. T. J. Walker • Malcom C. Wells

Medical Detachment
James E. Baker • James W. Burton • William A. Dorsey • John L. Jenkins

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Meeting Cliff Van Doren in Denver

This morning in Denver I met 94-year-old 302nd Port Company veteran Cliff Van Doren. He lives in TX, but is in Colorado visiting. Also meeting us were members of his family (pictured above), the son of another 302nd Port Company GI, and the daughter of a 305th Port Company GI. It was great to meet everyone in person and share WWII stories. (That's me in the fedora)

Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Sinking SS Charles Morgan as seen from the SS Clara Barton

I recently received a scan from the album of William Kelly. Bill served in the 304th Port Company and was friends with my grandfather. His daughter was nice enough to share this photo of the SS Charles Morgan sinking off of Utah Beach. The supply ship was bombed by the Germans on June 10, 1944. The back of the photo says that it was taken from the deck of the SS Clara Barton. My site has four posts about the attack.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

A Night at the 3rd Annual WWII Ball, Boulder, CO

(Click any of the images to view a larger version)

On Saturday the 18th I went to the 3rd annual 1940s WWII Era Ball in Boulder, Colorado. There was a huge turnout with nearly everyone arriving in costume. A big band played, along with a Sinatra singer, and an Andrew's Sisters tribute. There was a collection of vintage vehicles and aircraft on display. The most impressive were the Stuart tank (above) and the Navy Avenger (below).

My daughter posing in front of the Avenger.

I sold a few books, talked to a bunch of people, and hung out with 519th Port Battalion veteran Bruce Kramlich. He lives here in Colorado, so he was able to join me at my table. Bruce was pleased to talk to people about his service. The Ball's net proceeds support The Wounded Warriors Project and The Spirit of Flight Center.

P.S. Today I had the treat of seeing the Avenger fly right over our house as it departed Boulder Airport. WWII era aircraft have such a distinct rumbling engine. The plane's sound announced its arrival before it came into view.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

2 Books on the GI-British Experience

In researching my book I was very interested to hear veterans' recollections of their time in Britain before the Normandy invasion. The men in my grandfather's battalion were stationed there from April to June 1944. The Americans were billeted in private homes and became very friendly with their English host families. This was actually a rare experience among GIs. Of the nearly 3 million US troops that moved through Britain only about 100,000 were assigned to live with local civilians. The vast majority of Americans lived in military bases and camps, and the US military wanted to keep them there as much as possible to prevent trouble with the British public.

Most GIs didn't live in the homes of local families, but they interacted with the British people in many other ways. An excellent book on this subject is Rich Relations: The American Occupation of Britain by David Reynolds. The nearly 600 page text covers every possible angle. Reynolds details the official American, British, and Canadian authorities' policies towards foreign troops mixing with the local people. The nations tackled issues such as soldier health, marriage, racial segregation, crime, public opinion, morale, and military readiness. The broad view of official policy is complimented with specific personal experiences of individual soldiers and civilians. A massive amount of research and detail went into this text, while the writing is still very engaging.

Some US troops passed through the UK in a matter of weeks. Many more were in the country for several months, and some (such as the personnel of the 8th Air Force) lived and operated there for years. For many GIs interaction with the people of Britain was a major part of the overall wartime experience.

Shire Publications recently released a new book in their Living History series. The concise and well-illustrated Wartime Britain by Mike Brown is a nice companion to Reynold's hefty textbook. As with other titles in the series, the writing is complimented by period photographs, images of historic objects, and specially commissioned illustrations. Although not focused on the American experience, Brown describes the British wartime life which the GIs encountered. The short chapters depict family life, neighborhoods work, food, safety, style, transportation, recreation, and the general mood of the country.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

A Short History of the 518th Port Battalion

1st Private Anglin, 301st Port Company, 518th Port Battalion, Normandy 1944.
Photo courtesy of Solomon Fein.

The 518th Port Battalion served on Utah Beach alongside my grandfather's 519th. Last year I began speaking with a veteran of the 518th, Solomon Fein. He had some great stories and helped me understand the general work of port companies in Normandy. I approached the National Archives, requesting copies of any documents they had on the 518th. I was hoping to receive a detailed written history with dates, places, and maybe even a map or two. Unfortunately, the only records they found were some monthly statistics on tonnage unloaded from supply ships—not very helpful.

When my grandfather's obituary appeared in the newspaper last month it was spotted by another 518th Port Battalion veteran, William James. William has lived in Albany, NY for as long as my grandfather lived in Schenectady and Rotterdam, NY. William was surprised to see a port battalion veteran listed in the paper and he felt compelled to pay his respects at the funeral service. He was still more surprised to see a book had been written about WWII port battalions. My family gave him a free copy and I have talked with him several times since then.

In 1994 William returned to Utah Beach for the 50th anniversary commemoration of the D-Day invasion. The veterans were asked to write down their memories of their time on Normandy. William recently sent me copies of his notes, which is the closest thing to an official history of the battalion.

The 518th Port Battalion (composed of the 278th, 281st, 298th, 299th, 300th, and 301st port companies) trained at Indiantown Gap (see chapter 3 of my book). William's account picks up after the battalion was sent overseas:

After landing in Glasgow, Scotland in April 1943 my unit, the 298th Port Company of the 518th Port Battalion, moved to Plymouth, England early in the month of May 1943, where we loaded military supplies on ships and ocean going barges. [Solomon Fein's 301st Port Company worked in Fowey, England]. We moved to what I believe was Southampton, England about the end of May where we prepared for crossing the Channel.

We departed England on the afternoon of June 5th onboard a two-hold English coaster loaded with artillery ammunition. At day break the morning of June 6th I witnessed battleships, cruisers, and smaller Navy ships, all bombarding [German] coastal emplacements, i.e. pill boxes and perhaps some inland areas. We were surrounded by other supply ships, landing vessels, and troop carriers. There were small freighters such as ours and Liberty Ships and ocean-going barges. The barges had been towed across the Channel by the Liberty Ships.

Each ship flew one or two barrage balloons 150 to 200 feet above their bow and stern to protect them from dive-bombers. After a few days our antiaircraft guns were heavy along the coast, and at night there tracer fire was visible as far as the eye could see, and huge antiaircraft spotlights would light the night sky like day. For several days we continued to unload the coaster that we crossed on, into Army DUKWs as they became available.

Several concrete-hulled Liberty Ships which were used to bring in supplies after being unloaded were later sunk in a manner as to form a breakwater off the beachhead. [This artificial breakwater was called a "Gooseberry"] Several of the barges were sunk to create a pier to which boats could anchor and supplies, vehicles, and troops were offloaded.

On our about the 5th or 6th day [June 11th or 12th] my company having unloaded the coaster, went ashore and established ourselves about a half mile inland, where we dug in, and we lived in the dugouts [foxholes], two men to a hole, in a large field which had been cleared of mines. We covered the hole with our pup tent. From this position we would travel to the beach area to unload supplies, working in twelve hour shifts day and night. Our position was under nightly observation by a German plane, and on two occasions we were bombed.

Men from the 301st Port Company posing in front of a German pillbox, Utah Beach 1944.
Photo courtesy of Solomon Fein.

Sometime in late September our battalion moved to the port city of Cherbourg and continued bringing in supplies.

During the invasion my company and battalion were part of the 38th Engineer Regiment of the 1st Engineer Special Brigade which had the responsibility to move the supplies and material to the units moving inland. There is now
a monument erected on top of the pill box [concrete German bunker] from which we operated daily, which commemorates all the units of the "1st Engineer Special Brigade H-hour 0630, D-Day June 6th 1944."

At some point after Cherbourg Solomon Fein's company moved to Gent, Belgium, were they remained for the rest of the war. William James' company remained in Cherbourg.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Two Generals, by Scott Chantler review

"But as these stories are handed down to us, so must we hand them down lest such delicate lines be lost among the broader strokes of history." —Two Generals, p 132.

Shelves of WWII books dominate the history section of bookstores. Yet the vastness of that conflict is reduced to just a few narrow subjects. The same paratroopers, tank commanders, and fighter aces tend to receive the greatest attention. Two Generals, a graphic novel about an officer in the Highland Light Infantry of Canada, is a refreshing contribution to WWII history. Scott Chantler's visual approach presents his grandfather's experience in a way more meaningful than simple text might allow.

The illustration style and production quality of Two Generals is excellent. The bulk of the story is told in sepia-greys, with emotional or violent panels set in red. Producing the hardcover edition in the form of a diary (with bookmark) was an especially nice touch.

Scott Chantler is a cartoonist and illustrator. Check out his comic blog to see his other graphic novels and to see more reviews of Two Generals. Chantler took on the historian's role by referencing his grandfather's personal diary and the official Highland Light Infantry of Canada unit history. He spoke with the current battalion historian* and interviewed a veteran who served during WWII. This research is presented in his Two Generals research blog. I had the greatest fun researching my own WWII book, so I am eager to read the background to his story.

As well-researched as it is, I feel I must point out one historical inaccuracy. On two pages there is a depiction of German paratroopers dropping into the battle. Although these Fallschirmjäger were certainly present for the Normandy fighting, they did not arrive from the sky. Superior Allied air power prevented German flights and Hitler was uneasy about large scale air drops after the disaster in Crete, so the paratroopers arrived by truck and by foot. Chantler can be forgiven for this mistake, because the scene is based on the perceptions of his grandfather. I interviewed several Normandy veteran GIs who shared this misconception. In the weeks after hitting the beach there was a persistent rumor of German paratroopers dropping behind Allied lines. History proved it to be false, but to the main character of Two Generals the talk of paratroopers was real enough.

*The Highland Light Infantry fused with the Scots Fusiliers in 1960, becoming what is now the Royal Highland Fusiliers of Canada.

P.S. In Normandy the H.L.I. fought around Caen. Their story intersects that of my grandfather's when they went on to take a prominent part in the Battle of the Scheldt. I can't help but wonder if Chantler's grandfather and my own might have crossed paths while on leave in Antwerp!

P.P.S. Today it was announced that Two Generals is nominated for the 2011 Eisner Award.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Living Accommodations on the Normandy Beaches

Chapter 9 of my book discusses the unusual living accommodations of the service troops on Utah Beach. For the first 18 days the 519th Port Battalion bivouacked much as any Army in the field would do. They dug two-man fox holes and covered them pup tents. In the above photo we can see port company men digging in just inland from the sand dunes. Note the barrage balloons and in the distance the two gaps blown out of the sand dunes by the engineers. The ocean lies beyond.

On June 24th the battalion moved inland to an apple orchard 1 mile south of Ravenoville. As service troops in a permanent location, the port company men had the time and resources to build shelters more substantial than mere foxholes. Small huts were constructed from dunnage, which was the scrap wood boards used to pack supplies in the holds of supply ships. The walls were built around a foxhole and topped with a canvas roof made from the GI's pup tents.

This photo shows Matt Marvin from HQ sitting with one of the children of the orchard's owners. The Duchemin family grew apples for the production of calvados. This apple brandy was freely shared with the GIs much to the officers' chagrin.

This shot taken by Dave Weaver reveals all the GI's comforts housed within. Note the carbine slung along the hut's frame. With no windows the huts were completely dark inside. Solomon Fein, a veteran of the 518th Port Battalion, tells me he fashioned wind-proof lanterns using emptied glass jars. The men lived in these huts until November of 1944.

After speaking with 517th Port Battalion veteran Charles Morris I learned that similar huts were built by the port companies at Omaha Beach (see above photo). These little houses were not unique to the port companies. It seems all the Engineer Special Brigade troops working on the Normandy Beaches built them. The structures all look so similar that I thought it likely that they were built by company carpenters using an official plan. However, all the veterans I interviewed told me that it was up to the individual GIs to build their own homes. They called them huts or shacks. Charles Sprowl of the 490th Port Battalion called them dog houses.

Richard Bass' book Brigades of Neptune briefly mentions the Normandy huts at Omaha Beach. They were situated along roads named by the engineers ETO Boulevard and Duration Road. Note the metal trackway to create a path over the mud.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Stevedoring in Popular Culture

I think it's safe to say stevedoring has only minimal recognition in popular culture. I hadn't heard of a "stevedore" before researching my grandfather's military service. This is the general term applied to port workers (either civilian or military) who manage the loading and unloading of ships and run the docks. There is a subtle distinction between a "stevedore" and a "longshoreman." Depending on the time and place the "longshoreman" was hired to work the docks only (not aboard ship). Yet the US War Department's 1943 Stevedoring and Wharf Handling manual says that a portion of the ship's hatch crew should be longshoreman. In any case, not all the troops in an Army port battalion could technically be classified as longshoremen.

I titled my book Longshore Soldiers, because "longshoremen" have some recognition with the general public. "Longshore" quickly brings up a picture of dock work and cargo ships, while I'm sure few outside of the industry would be at all familiar with the word "stevedore." Considering the unfamiliarity people have with stevedores, I was impressed to hear the trade referenced in an episode of NBC's 30 Rock. If you haven't seen it, this comedy is a parody of sketch shows like Saturday Night Live. In the fifth season's episode "The Old College Try" Alec Baldwin's character, Jack, mentions his past as a young dock worker:

"But yes, I've had to work my entire life. It began when my father left and I started working on the Boston docks as a twelve-year-old stevedore. "Bales up, you micks! Bales up!"

My grandpa and the 519th Port Battalion worked the Boston docks too! The "bales" Baldwin refers to are bound bunches of cotton, textiles, etc. hoisted up through the ship's hatch. And, of course, the "micks" are Irish immigrants (Happy St. Paddy's Say, by the way).

Shipping Pallets
We've all seen wooden pallets before (photo at left from the 1943 Stevedoring and Wharf Handling manual). There's some kind of commercial trucking site near me that has stacks and stacks of them along the highway. These shipping tools were actually pretty revolutionary in WWII. Loose supplies are strapped on top of the pallet, and the space below allows a fork lift to move the the stack as one great package. This increases loading/unloading speed, but reduces a ship's storage capacity (all those pallets take up room in the hold). They were first used my the US military in the Pacific campaign. Speed is crucial in military unloading operations, so the practice was picked up by Army stevedores in the European/Mediterranean theater.

Pallets have entered pop culture as material for DIY home projects. Not too long ago I saw a blog post using shipping pallets as wood paneling: See the home-design blog Poppytalk.

So that's it! Like I said earlier, very little relating to the Army stevedore's work has made its way into the broader public's consciousness.

Monday, March 7, 2011

No Greater Ally, by Kenneth Koskodan review

You may be surprised to learn that it was an all-Polish squadron that scoured the most enemy kills and fewest lost planes during the Battle of Britain. These Polish pilots reported enemy kills only when doubly-confirmed. This careful reporting was meant to accurately display their value to the doubting British military and public. Author Kenneth Koskodan accomplishes a similar goal with the same means. Based on first-person interviews, official military documents, and other published works his well-assembled account dispels any doubt one may have about the Poles' important contribution to the Allied war-effort.

In No Greater Ally: The Untold Story of Poland's Forces in World War II Koskodan aims to correct the errors and ignorance which traditionally surround the Polish military forces in the war. In-depth English-language histories have been absent, and until recently Soviet oppression had prevented the Polish themselves from freely writing about their part in the war. The author's writing is enthusiastic, while keeping the objectivity of a proper historian.

The German invasion of 1939 did not proceed without a serious and determined challenge from the Poles. That old story of a pathetic Polish cavalry charge against German tanks is revealed to be a myth of fascist newspapers. Much like highly mobile dragoons, the Polish "cavalry" actually dismounted to attack with effective personal anti-tank weapons. Koskodan addresses other long-held distortions and brings the obscured accomplishments of the Polish forces to our attention.

No Greater Ally tells of the Polish military forces' dramatic escape from the German and Russian invaders, their attempt to support the poorly-lead French, their highly successful role within the British army and air force, and the ill-fated resistance of their secret army in Poland. Polish fighting skill, zeal, and success impressed the Allies. Yet, the war-weary British and Americans abandoned the Poles to subjugation by the Soviets in 1945. The Polish heroism and the devastation brought to their country will impress any scholar of World War II.

P.S. Polish forces fought with the Allies all across Europe and North Africa. This book is a broad overview of Polish military service during the war. If you are interested in details particular to a certain battle then you'll need to find a more specialized book.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

"Van" and "Hoppie"

Last week I received a message from the daughter of Jay C. Van Zandt. "Van" had served in the same port company as my grandfather. His daughter recently retired, so she has had time to go through his old WWII stuff. While reading a letter sent to his sweetheart she found a mention of my grandpa Cortland. She was good enough to mail me a copy.

The letter talks about the GI's free time in Antwerp. It appears to have been written in June of 1945, after the Germans surrendered. Sgt. Van Zandt and my grandfather went to a movie together (see page 1). "Hoppie" had to get back to work, but Jay continued on to Antwerp's Royal Museum of Fine Arts and a tea room.

He later meets William Wilhoit at the Sergeants Club for a swim. I didn't see Wilhout's name in the 304th Port Company roster, but this may be because the ink was faded. The two men travel on to the Red Cross club for coffee and doughnuts. At last they return to their housing at Tampico Flats. My grandpa would have been sore to miss those favorites... if it weren't for the indigestion "Van" got from them.

Van Zandt's daughter is still reading through letters, I can't wait to see what else she finds.

I always knew my grandfather as "Corty," so it was funny to learn he actually preferred the nickname "Hoppie." He told me that his brother had laid claim to "Hoppie" when they were young, so when Cortland left for the Army he took the opportunity to use it himself. After returning home he went back to "Corty," which remained his nickname until he moved into an assisted living home a few years ago. One again he found himself away from the people who knew him only as "Corty" so he was able to bring back the old favorite "Hoppie."