|PART ONE -
PEORIA TO MUNICH
The World At War
On February 8, 1943, the envelope from the United States Selective Service arrived at my little rented room on Morton Street in the near-northside of Peoria, Illinois. I knew the greetings it contained even before I opened it. The war had been raging in Europe ever since Hitler had invaded Poland in 1939, prompting France and England to unite to halt the ever approaching Axis forces - a powerful machine of destruction consisting of Germany, Japan, and Italy. By the summer of 1940, Denmark and Norway had been overrun by the Nazis, France had surrendered in the face of imminent massive loss of life, and Britain valiantly fought on alone. The United States had been drawn progressively closer to the war by voting Lend-Lease to England and then moving to protect shipping by occupying Iceland and Greenland, adding to the considerable tension created by Japan's aggression in Indo-China and Thailand. When the Japanese Imperial Army launched an unprovoked attack on Pearl Harbor in the Hawaiian Islands, the U.S., with all the Allies except the USSR, declared war on Japan. Hitler, in an attempt to defend the military strength Japan offered him in his drive across Europe, declared war against the United States. U.S. involvement was primarily in the Philippines where our forces were progressively recapturing territory that had been lost to the Axis. In the closing months of 1942, even more U.S. support was needed in Europe and the Philippines, and our country was girding itself to make more sacrifices in terms of sheer manpower. America had a major investment in protecting the freedom of the besieged territories far from our borders. These were the world conditions when I received my notice to appear for induction into the United States Army.
Induction and Basic Training
With much apprehension, on February 18, I entered the Processing Office of the United States Army in Bloomington, Illinois for induction. Following the completion of many printed forms and bureaucratic shuffling from line to line, I stepped out into the sunlight as a Private in the U.S. Army. I was now Government Issue serial number 36449349. I was directed to the nearby Rogers Hotel for my first overnight stay in a hotel. It was a pleasant and reassuring diversion to be called that night by some friends who were nurses at the Mennonite Hospital. I suspected that my sweetheart from high school, Kay Eigsti, was responsible for that, as she was also a nurse at the hospital. The next morning, I boarded the Illinois Traction Train back to Peoria for my 8:00am physical, which was given to me somewhere in the 700 block of Main Street.
I took the Ann Rutledge train from Bloomington to Belleville where I reported to Scott Air Force Base on February 25. At Scott, I took the IQ exams, was outfitted and vaccinated, got my GI-style haircut, and went through the usual orientation program. On the 27th, I received a weekend pass home, hitch-hiking the whole way, and catching a ride in Normal with some El Paso people who took me right out to the front door of my home at the farm in Gridley. That GI uniform wasn't very pretty, but in 1943 America, it sure drew many a helping hand when you needed it!
On March 1, I was on the train from Scott Field headed toward the Fort Sill Military Reservation in southwest Oklahoma for basic training. I was assigned to FARTC - the Field Artillery Reserve Training Corps, Battery A, 28th Battalion, 7th Regiment, where I took instruction on 105mm split trail howitzers. Our camp out were near the Wichita Mountains, gingerly trying to avoid the attention of the many rattlesnakes. Weekend passes usually took me to Lawton, Oklahoma, where we frequented the typical GI haunts - movies, peepshows and non-alcoholic bars, spending a small portion of my army pay of $21 a month. I received one pass home and had to bring whiskey back to my sergeant from Illinois, as Oklahoma was a dry state. My six months of basic training was a concentrated course of foot drills, weapon handling, and survival techniques.
I left Fort Sill on June 21 by train, traveling to Fort Bragg, North Carolina to join the 101st Airborne. The troop train stopped in Meridian, Mississippi, which happened to be the hometown of Robert Bunyard, one of the recruits on the train with me. Since we were not allowed to leave the station in Meridian, we tipped a porter to call Bunyard's family, who came down to the train to meet us. Through the Bunyards I sent a telegram home to my folks to let them know what I was doing and where I was going. Incidentally, just one year later, during aerial combat, Bob Bunyard and I were together when shot down over Holland. While at Fort Bragg, I received one pass home before shipping out, so I was able to see my family one more time before leaving the country. On August 30, I left Bragg for New York, where I was to exit the United States to be a part of one of America's most formidable fighting forces - The 101st "Screaming Eagles" Airborne Division!