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."