3rd Auxiliary Surgical Group
As mentioned previously the group is split into two sections, the other main one is the 3rd Auxiliary Surgical Group who had teams attached to all number of other units to provide medical support.
However, the 3rd ASG started life in the dullest way...
The Captain propped his feet on the desk and reached for the morning paper. He was bored. In the adjutant's office at Fitzsimons Hospital, nothing ever happened. A few clerks were talking about last night's basketball game. A mail orderly dawdled by the water cooler. Through a glass partition came the sounds of a typewriter, muffled and intermittent. Nobody was in a hurry. The Captain began to read.
The news was all about the war. The Japs were pushing up the Burma Road. The British had occupied Madagascar. A man called Eisenhower seemed to swing a lot of weight in Washington. But it all sounded so far away. By comparison Fitzsimons General Hospital was drudgery. Nothing but reports, inspections, and more reports. Why couldn't the war be fought without three copies of every trivial transaction? The Captain shifted his gaze to the window where the Rocky Mountains seemed to frame his thoughts. It would be nice to have a picnic tonight.
The Telephone rang.
"this is Fiztsimons General Hospital."
"This is Fort Sam Houston. Just issued orders for the Third Auxiliary Surgical Group. We want the cadre tomorrow."
Holy Smokes. The Third Auxiliary Surgical Group? Why, this was his new outfit! And the cadre was supposed to there tomorrow? No time to be lost now. Clear the decks. Picnic go hang. Round up the men. Finish service records. Transfer company funds. Find out about trains. Get rolling. It was 5 May 1942.
A cadre is a small group of key personnel that is send out to form the nucleus of a new unit. In this case it consisted of Captain Clifford L.Graves and six enlisted men: a first sergeant, a mess sergeant, a supply sergeant, a clerk, a cook, and a cooks helper. These men had been selected a few days earlier but they had no inkling that their departure would be so precipitous. Graves thought that he could smell a rat. He went to the executive officer. "Say-what is this? Are we going on a wild goose chase or do they really want us that bad?"
"Don't kid yourself. You're the first outfit to be ordered out by phone. I bet you'll be on the boat in a week!"
Good heavens! This sounded like the real thing. Fort Sam Houston was a thousand miles away. Twenty-four hours by train. Suppose he missed that train? That would be a disgrace. He dared not think any further. The train was too slow. He would fly. This assignment meant everything.
Eight hours and three traffic tickets later Graves jumped out of a cab, grabbed his suitcase, and dashed for the waiting plane. Hurrah! He made it. Now the war could start.
Fort Sam Houston the next day did not look at all like the place to give birth to such a whirlwind organisation as the Third Aux. In the hot afternoon sun the enormous drill-field was a vast empty space. Soldiers moved with matter-of-factness that was strangely inconsistent with the occasion. "Must be to deceive the enemy," was Graves' reaction and without further speculation he ordered his cab to take him to the hospital. He closed his eyes and rehearsed what he was going to say: "Captain Graves reporting for duty with the Third Auxiliary Surgical Group." Then the adjutant would jump up and say "yes Captain, here are your orders. You sail Monday." How exciting!
The cab drew up at the hospital and Grave bounced out. A Sergeant was on duty at the information desk:
"Third Auxiliary Surgical Group? Never heard of it, Captain. Maybe the O.D. knows."
The O.D. consulted his file.
"I don't see it on my record, Captain. Try the adjutant."
The Hospital Adjutant scratched his head. "Sorry Captain. The Post Adjutant may be able to help you."
The Post Adjutant was emphatic.
"Now wait a minute, Captain. I have been in this man's Army a long time and I have never heard of an auxilery surgical group."
Third Army Headquarters was next. "Third Auxol-Third Auxil-.... Well, anyway, we don't have it here."
That left only one place, Corps Service Command. Wearily, Graves pursued this last remaining clue. He drew a blank. The Third Aux was a phantom, a mirage, a figment in the minds of men at the pentagon.
Actually there was someone at Fort Sam Houston who knew all about the Third Aux and a very important person he was: none other than Lieutenant Colonel J.Fred Blatt, commanding officer of the organisation. An eminently practical man, he knew that in the Army it does not always pay to be inquisitive. While Captain Graves scoured the Post for a scent, Blatt was relaxing at the Officers Club. It was not until the next day that the two met, quite by accident.
The same thing that happened to Captain Graves on his first day at Forth Sam Houston happened to a hundred other other Third Auxers during the next six months. Always the same urgency about the orders. Always the same headlong rush. Always the same sobering reception. The only difference in the welcoming routine was that the sergeant at the welcoming desk would no longer raise his eyebrows. Instead, he would say with an air of authority "The Third Aux? Oh yes. That's the crazy outfit over by the water tower." Deflated, the new recruits would find a nondescript organisation with an obscure past, a nebulous present, and an uncertain future. The Third Aux had a long way to go.
Be that as it may, on 7 May 1942 the Third Aux was nothing but a bedraggled, homeless, ridiculously little cluster of two officers and six enlisted men and it was destined to remain that way for many weeks. If the War Dept had been in a great hurry with the activation, it was in just as much of a hurry to forget all about the "crazy outfit". What was an auxiliary surgical group anyway? No one knew because such a group had never been in existence before. The Medico-Military Manual, otherwise a bible of information, dismissed the subject with two short paragraphs. It spoke vaguely about the First World War, mentioned that a table of organisation dating back to 1925, and theorised about the use of surgical teams in the zone of communications. About all that could be determined was that the Third Aux would operate under Table of Organisation 8/512/ This table called for 58 surgical teams and a headquarters section. Each team was to have three medical officers, a nurse, and two enlisted men. The teams were as follows.
24 general surgical teams
6 splint teams
6 shock teams
6 gas teams
4 maxillofacial teams
4 neurosurgical teams
4 thoracic surgical teams
later 3 dental teams were added and fixed number of officers at 132, nurses at 70, and enlisted men at 176.
But how was this Group to operate? Would the teams go to the front or stay at the base? Would they be independent units or helpless appendages? Would they do important work or would they be merely tolerated? These were the questions that assailed Colonel Blatt and Captain Graves and there was no answer.
In the absence of any palpable leads, the little group tackled the job of house keeping. There had to be an office, there had to be a mess, there had to be transportation, and there had to be billets. The billeting officer put the Third Aux where he thought it belonged: in a barracks housing the riot squad!
The first official act was to appoint Captain Graves executive officer, adjutant, personnel officer, plans and training officer, supply officer, agent finance officer, summary court officer, transportation officer, detachment commander, and fund custodian. At that, his duties consisted of little more than to scan the mail, sign the rosta, shoot the bull, pass the buck, write through channels, and keep a copy.
The second official act was to attach the enlisted men for quarters and rations to an organisation that was already a going concern: the 56th Evacuation Hospital.
The third official act was to write a letter to the War Dept and ask what it was all about. The answer was somewhat disappointing. For instance, Colonel Blatt wanted to know about organisation equipment. An evacuation hospital with less personnel than an auxiliary surgical group draws enough stuff to fill fifty trucks. The Third Aux drew not even a table of allowances. Apparently, the powers considered this a matter that could be adjusted later. It never was. Until the very end, Third Auxers lived in borrowed tents, rode in borrowed trucks, and even cooked on borrowed stoves.
The Fort Sam Quartermaster came to the rescue. Somewhere in fine print if said that an auxiliary surgical group could have three cars and three trucks. Colonel Blatt relaxed. Never again did the Third Aux have so much transportation for so few people.
Those first six weeks were discouraging indeed. There was a first sergeant but were no men to drill. There was a supply sergeant but there were no supplies to store. There was a mess sergeant but there was no mess to run. There was a cook, but no food to cook. There was a cook's helper, but no cook to help. So everybody helped everybody else do nothing. The Third Auxers lived in a vacuum and it was hard to take as a time when the Japs had overrun the Philippines, when the Germans were threatening Cairo, and then the Russians were hanging on by the skin of their teeth.
And then, on one particularly hot and idle afternoon towards the end of June, Colonel Blatt picked up the mail and jumped. "Hooray," he said, "we're off." The reason for this unusual outburst was that a new officer had been assigned to the Group. He was Captain Kenneth Smith who made his appearance on 25 June. Barely had he settled down when six more officers followed him in quick succession. Captain Smith became an understudy for Captain Graves. The others went on detached service at the Station Hospital. Later, when the group was being groomed for overseas duty, these men came back to Headquarters to help with the readying process.
On 1 July another big event occurred: the first shipment of enlisted-men arrived. There were twenty-one of them and they looked mighty good to the critical eyes of the Colonel and Captain Graves. In no time at all they had been processes, tested, classified, and billeted. Some went to the school for medical technicians, some to the school for cooks and bakers, and the rest were quickly transformed into drivers, mechanics, clerks, and orderlies. Now for the first time it was possible to make up schedules and start training. Slowly the Third Aux was taking shape.
As soon as Chief Nurse, Lieutenant Anna Moline, reported for duty she was asked to organise a practical course. By dividing the students into small groups, she was able to rotate them through the utility rooms, the operating rooms, the sterilising room, the surgical wards, and all other departments of a hospital. The graduates of this course became valuable instructors when the group was on its own overseas.
During those long hot summer months int he arid country of southern Texas, life for Third Auxers alternated between excitement and utter boredom. It was a time when everybody was completely in the dark and when every opinion, no matter how wild of unreasonable, became a subject for heated argument. There were the serious ones and the lighthearted ones, the worriers and the jokers, the introverts and the extroverts. The the mess, the conversation would run about like this:
"say, fellow, did you hear the latest? We're sailing next week and they are going to give us those damned life preservers that turn you upside down in the water so you drown like a rat. I heard about them from my brother."
"Holy mackerel! You don't mean it, or you? Why, that's plain murder! But we won't all have to sail, will we? I heard that men over thirty-seven can stay home."
"Hell no! The old guys will be scarified first. The War Dept figures that the young people are more valuable. But you might get to fly."
"Well, I Don't know if that's much better. I think I'll turn in at the hospital. I had asthma once."
"No use, fellow. They've got your number. At the Pentagon they are ready call us the suicide squad."
At other times there was real reason for consternation. The telephone call that came in one Saturday afternoon when everyone body had gone for the weekend was enough to give and commanding officer the jitters. The call came from the Quartermaster at Fort Sam Houston.
"Hello, is this Third Auxiliary Surgical Group"
"I've got orders here to equip you for immediate shipment overseas. You've got A-1 priority."
"that's what it says here. You are to get full field equipment plus an extra issue of dust respirators, sun goggles, tropical helmets, mosquito bars, and quinine."
"But we haven't got anybody here to equip. We have exactly ten officers and forty men. You don't mean that they are going to send us at 10% strength, do you?"
"Well, that's what it says where. Better send your trucks right away."
What had happened? It was all a little matter of confusing the Third Aux with the Second Aux. The War Dept at this time was making preparations for the invasion of North Africa and the plans called for several surgical teams. The Second Aux, which had been activated at Lawson General Hospital a few weeks before the Third Aux. Somebody in Washington had switched the numbers and sent the orders to the wrong address! It was as simple as that but before the error was discovered, there were a lot of people at Fort Sam who tore their hair and gnashed their teeth. The Second Auv teams left the country in September and landed in North Africa on 11 November.
The Third Aux had hardly subsided into its now natural somnolence when there came a real dust-raiser: a telegram from the War Dept instructing Colonel Blatt to report to the Chief of Professional Services in Washington for the selection of officer personnel. This was on 3 September.
The Country had now been at war for almost nine months. Thousands of medical officers had been called into service. Each officer had filled out a questionnaire. The evaluation of these questionnaires took much time, and while this was going on, the officers were put in cold storage in medical pools all over the country. When Colonel Blatt arrived in Washington, he found some 30,000 questionnaires already on file.
The Third Aux needed 48 completely trained, vigorous, young surgeons, 48 assistants to these surgeons, and 48 anaesthetist. To select these, Colonel Blatt had many conferences with General Rankin who was then Chief of Professional Services. It was a big job, a job that could make of break the Third Aux. Time proved that Colonel Blatt used good judgement. When he returned to Fort Sam Houston he had with him a tentative roster of men who became the backbone of the organisation, men who carried on from the very beginning till the very end, men who went through three invasions and seven campaigns, men who combined professional maturity with youthful enthusiasm. In age, they ranged between thirty and forty-five and in experience they represented the best that America had to offer. These were the front-line surgeons of the Second World War.
The pool system was undoubtedly the best way of fitting every man into his niche, but it did have its vagaries. Men from the eastern part of the country would be send to the pools in California, from there to the Third Aux in Texas, and then back to New York for embarkation. Typical of these was Lieutenant Friedman. Snatched from his home in New York City on 15 November, he was dispatched to the pool at St Barbara, California. He had barely arrived when he was transferred to the Third Aux San Antonio. At Fort Sam Houston he was just in time to get on the train for Camp Kilmer and on 1 December he found himself back in New York, When the Queen Mary cast loose, Friedman had travelled 8,000 miles to get from 116th Street to 59th Street, a distance of about three miles.
On 27 September, the Third Aux had 11 officers. On 27 November when it left for Camp Kilmer it had 119. At Camp Kilmer 10 more officers joined to bring the total to 129. These 129 officers came from every state in the Union. They brought with them fresh ideas and they exchanged information at every opportunity. These men learned from each other and the experience was tremendously stimulating. The Third Aux was a great melting pot.
Keeping pace was a rapid build-up in enlisted men. The first contingent arrived on 1 July and came from Camp Berkley. Between 1 July and 26 November, a half dozen packets joined. They came from Camp Berkley, Camp Robinson, Camp Pickett, the Beaumont General Hospital, and the 56th Evacuation Hospital. Altogether, the enlisted strength on the day the Group left Fort Sam was 176. Six men had to be dropped off at the staging area so that the total strength on sailing was 170.
As more and more men joined the organisation, Major Graves graduated and concentrated on Plans and Training . First Captain Smith became Adjutant. This lasted only until he was sent to Edgewood Arsenal for a course in Gas Warfare. Then Major Harry P.Harper, who later was to become Executive Officer, took over as Adjutant.
By 12 October, the officer strength was 36. This was considered enough to start a training program. Major Graves evolved a course of great practical interest. Rather than adhere rigidly to prescribed subjects, he decided to include material that might be useful to men at the front. The course lasted six weeks during which Third Auxers saw the Army "as she is."
The introduction was a talk on the the fundamental fighting unit, namely the infantry division. Officers from each representative unit they accomplished their mission. An infantry captain showed the weapons of the foot soldier, first in the classroom and then in the field. After this, Third Auxers attended an exciting demonstration on the range where an entire infantry company fired all its weapons, firstly singly and then in unison. The 300 rifles going off all at once, the ricochet of tracer bullets, the sharp snap of mortar shells, the lightning quick nothings of the crews, the flaming targets, these gave the Third Auxers a healthy respect for what an infantry company can do.
The same sort of teaching was used for Divisional Artillery. A medium howitzer battalion was choosen as an example. After listening to preliminary talk, Third Auxers went to Camp Bullis and deployed themselves at the firing position. It was a dreary afternoon but as soon as the four trucks, each with 18,000 pound field piece in tow, appeared on the scene, the spectators forgot all about the threatening rain. Within a few minutes of their arrival, the gunners were in position. Third Auxers were amazed that they could actually see the shells sailing through the air. They went to the forward observation post. By this time a drizzle had started, but not a single man elected to stay in the truck when the voice came over the telephone: "On the way!" Seconds later the shells appeared overhead and burst into flame on the target. Later on, the sounds of these same howitzer became only too familiar to Third Auxers because in the combat zone, field hospitals are in front of the guns. To know that each shell is always carefully tagged is a course of satisfaction or anguished depending on where a man is.
There were no tanks af Fort Sam Houston but the San Antoio Arsenal had plenty of them. Every Third Auxer got inside the turret and rode around the testing ground, an experience that made him fully cognisant of what a tank driver goes through. When these same tank drivers were brought to the field hospitals in Europe, Third Auxers understood why the wounds were of the most devastating kind.
When it came to medical service in the field, the Third Aux instructors had very little to go by. Nobody yet knew there the teams would work. Existing manuals were little help. The only guide was the interesting book "Field Surgery in Total War" by Major Jolly, a New Zealander who had gained his experience in the Spanish Civil War. In this book Major Jolly explained the three-point-forward system which was eventually copied by the Americans. The words three-point -system refer to the three kinds of hospitals that are needed in the line of evacuation, namely a small forward hospital for severely wounded, a larger intermediate hospital for all wounded, and a still larger base hospital for definitive care. Third Auxers discussed this book from every angle.
To give the men an idea of medical installations in the field Major Graves asked the 2nd Division to put on demonstration. Third Auxers saw battalion aid stations, collecting stations, and clearing stations and they learned about the problems of evacuation in the combat zone. It was their introduction to a subject that was to occupy all their engines.
At this time the 2nd Division went through manoeuvres, Third Auxers participated. These manoeuvres made such a profound impression on the men that when the airborne divisions sent out a call for volunteer surgical teams shortly before the Normandy invasion Third Auxers rose magnificently to the occasion. The experiences form one of the most exciting chapters in the history group.
Army training programs lay great stress on physical hardening and road marches, two feature that are not exactly popular with medical men. However, here too Major Graves had a solution. He substituted horse back rides for the weekly road marches! Every Wednesday morning the Third Aux would go for a canter. The rides continued until one fine morning when Major Haynes drew an exceptionally frisky mare and was thrown from his galloping mount in front of the house of the Commanding General. Haynes suffered minor concussion and the General sent word that the Third Aux was a surgical group, NOT a cavalry group. From then on,Third Auxers marches.
It can be seen that the program was not only highly practical but also had its lighter moments. When one of the officers remarked that the course had been complete except for the parachute jump, a note appeared on the bulletin board with the following announcement:
ATTENTION BLATT COMMANDO
Because of out peculiar mission as fitinerant surgeons, we may be called upon at any time to travel by plane over unknown territory. Emergency landings should be anticipated. To teach every man of this organisation how to orient himself on the surface of the globe by celestrial observation, an instructor from Hondo School for Aerial Navigation will hold a special-class next Tuesday. His words may saves lives some day.
The class was held as scheduled but the notice had some unexpected by-products. Intended mainly to stimulate interest, it created trepidation in not a few and even led one man to seek admission to the hospital. Other reacted the opposite and send copies home to prove that they belonged to a blood-and-thunder outfit. The only Third Auxer actually to profit from the class was Captain Serbst. In the spring of 1945 Serbst escaped from the prison camp at Hammelburg and found his way to American lines "by the stars."
As the group grew in size, Colonel Blatt had to cast about for larger quarters. At first, the officers could easily be accommodated in the BOQ but towards the end of September the 2nd Division returned from manoeuvres and its numerous company-grade officers quickly overflowed the buildings. Fort Sam had been built on the orthodox premise that the Army has about one officer to ten enlisted men. The Third Aux fell completely out of line. It actually had more officers than men! Nothing like it had ever been seen before. The billeting officer threw up his hands. there just wasn't lebensraum for the Third Aux.
For one solution was to repair Dodd field, a dreary tent-camp of World War 1 vintage. Third Auxers had eyed it with suspicion from the beginning because they all realised that eventually those draughty tents and dusty streets would become home for them. The move took place in September for the enlisted men and somewhat later for the officers. Not all of them embraced the rugged hospitality with patriotic enthusiasm. San Antonio had a fine hotel, the St.Anthony. For a long time after the Group was overseas, Third Auxers took a vicarious pleasure in recounting its air-conditioned luxuries.
There was another reason why Dodd Field quickly became a source of irritation: it was more than two miles from the main Post. To get from Headquarters to Dodd Field a man had to tramp for forty minutes over a rough, gravelled road that exacted its toll in sprained ankles and ruined shoes. The only man to cope successfully with this obstacle was Major Graves who bumped along on his bicycle at all hours of the day.
Towards the middle of November the bomb burst. The Third Aux was alerted. Headquarters became a beehive. Officers were arriving in droves. An assembly line was organised. The newcomers were interviewed by Colonel Blatt, welcomed by Major Graves, processed by their fellows, fingerprinted, radiated, ultravioleted, drawn and quartered. Nothing was left to the imagination. Captain Avent took care of that immunisation records, the dog-tags, the eye glasses, the blood-type cards, and the identification cards. Sergeant Brattesani had the allotment forms and the insurance blanks. Captain Serbst handled classification cards, and the locator cards. Major Snow took are of the baggage stencils. Lieutenant Tella busied himself with supplies and equipage. Captain Maley had the pay voucher, the pay-data cards, the travel-and-uniform allowances, the last-will-and testaments, and the power-of-attorney blanks. Everything but the last rites.
But this was not all. Soon the Third Aux would be roughing it. Everyone knew it and everyone wanted to be prepare. The quartermaster supplied the basic items such as the pup tent, the mosquito bar, the bedding roll, the suspender belt, the meat pan, the mess kit, the canteen, and the first aid pouch. But these were only the bare necessaries. A man had to draw a sleeping bag, an air mattress, a valpak. Each time someone showed up at Headquarters with one of these articles, there would be a run on the Post Exchange by a hundred others. The next day it might be a canvas water dipper, a Bowie knife, a money belt, a compass, an identification bracelet, a Zippo lighter, or a Burberry coat. Again there would be a PX invasion. The line of reasoning ran from sublime to the ridiculous. Captain Stoller stuck his Harvard Reader next to his gas mask and Captain Sutton inquired solemnly: "I wonder if I should take a pillow?" Some men laid in a three months' supply of soap, others a six months' supply of candy, and still others a year's supply of candy, and still others a year's supply of tobacco. Hour-long discussions arose on what was useful and what was useless, until the standard greeting became not "How are you?" but "What did you buy today?"
Of course all this equipment had to be packed. The only container large enough was the bedding roll which provided room for GI underwear, heavy overalls, high-top shoes, woollen blankets, a pup tent, a mosquito bar, mattress cover, and odds and ends. Just to roll the giant sausage took three men: one to pound, one to pull, and one to roll. Carrying it was completely out of the question. A few Third Auxers eventually learned to subdue the monster, but for the majority it remained a source of despair.
If Third Auxers thought that their bedding roll was a headache, Colonel Blatt had an even bigger headache with the organisation equipment. The Third Aux had no table of allowances. Officially it was a pauper. Could this extraordinary organisation go overseas empty handed? Colonel Blatt thought no. He went into a huddle with the Quartermaster. Scanning the tables of equipment for more conventional units, these estimated how much of each item would probably be required by an auxiliary surgical group. The result was imposing, if extravagant. When everything had been packed and stacked, there were no less than sixty crates with everything from detectors, vesicant, liquid, to curtains, proof, gas. Lieutenant Tella was overwhelmed. His job was to safeguard all this property. It was love's laboir lost. Of the sixty boxes, less than twenty arrived overseas. The other forty now rest on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.
Lieutenant Tella's tenure as supply officer was punctuated by another fiasco. At Fort Sam he drew some two hundred chairs for use in the classroom. In normal course of events, these chairs would have been returned to the warehouse when the Third Aux left, but in the general hurly-burly of the last few days, there was no time. Certainly, there were more important things to worry about than 200 chairs that were no good to anybody in the footloose Third Aux. On the date of departure Tella simply signed a memorandum receipt and promptly forgot all about the chairs.
But NOT the Quartermaster. When he came to balance t he books at the end of the year, the memorandum receipt was missing. Slowly the wheels began to turn. A letter was dispatched. It went to England, the North Africa. Then Sicily were it was delivered to Lt Tella. This was in the first lot of mail to reach the front. While his teammates enthusiastically discussed the latest news from home, Tella was treated to the information that his chairs were lost and they he would be found accountable to the tune of $1400! He immediately penned an endorsement which stated in dignified language that his main concern at that moment was to dodgy shells and not retrieve chairs! This stopped the Fort Sam sleuths dead in their tracks. Nothing was ever heard from them again.
The Group was now rapidly nearing the end of its stay at Fort Sam. On 15 November the Third Aux was alerted. The date of departure was set early in December. Wiseacres said: "Don't get excited. It will be months before we get going. Why, I know a unit that didn't leave for six months after it was alerted!" A few days later the alert was cancelled and the same men said "You see! I told you so!" They wired wives to come down. They rented houses and apartments for the season. They hung onto cars that had already been promised to would-be buyers. Everybody settled down for a winter in Texas.
Then came the devastating news: You move on 27 November! That gave just two days to get ready. To understand what it meant, one must realise that at this stage the Group was still only partly organised. Enlisted strength was less than half of what it should be. New officers were arriving every hour. Many of those already assigned were away on detached service. Third Auxers were scattered between San Antonio and Boston. How to get all these people back in time?
Wires buzzed. Telephones jangled. Teletype messages flew back and forth. Police in a dozen states were put on the lookout for Third Auxers. Lieutenant Spritzer was one of those who made it. He was in St. Louis, taking a course in chest surgery. When the alert sounded, he had just left on a hurried trip to his home in New Jersey. In Columbus, Ohio he suddenly decided to call home. The news hit him like a ton of bricks. He turned his car around, gave her the gun, and raced non-stop to San Antonio.
Captain Smith was one of those who did not make it. He was at Edgewood Arsenal is near Philadelphia. A hard-boiled adjutant refused to honour Smith's telegraphed orders. Precious hours were lost in verification. Finally Smith got on a train that arrived in San Antonio six hours after the Third Aux had left. He barely had time to say good-by to his family, draw his field equipment, and sell his car. Then he was off again for a place that was about forty miles away from where he started!
And then there were the men who had just installed families in San Antonio. And the men who found themselves with cars they could not get rid of. And the wives who were left stranded with cars they could not drive. And the wife who arrived in San Antonio from California two hours before the train time and kept right on till she got to New York. And the officer who was transferred on the day of departure but his misinterpreted his order in the confusion. He became a technical AWOL. It was an endless string of conflicts, misunderstandings, dilemmas, and cross-ups.
But these entanglements were picayune compared with the difficulties that confronted Headquarters. Communications were painfully slow. Trucks and cars had been turned in. Telephones worked only spasmodically. A shipment of one hundred enlisted men arrived at midnight on 26 November and had to be processed on the spot. There were bedding rolls to be stencilled, bills to be settled, belongings to be disposed of, funds to be converted, inventories to be made, quarters to be vacated, and rosters to be completed. It was Thanksgiving Day no Third Auxer will ever forget.
Train time was set for two o'clock. As the time drew nearer, the pressure increased. The same office that had lain dormant all summer now became a scene of feverish activity. Clerks worked frantically over rosters. The new adjutant, Lt Penterman, fussed and fumed about missing service records. Captain Hudson called all over town to find a butcher with half a ton of meat for sale. Colonel Blatt argued with two excited officials from the Transportation Corps. A work party dismantled the office piece by piece. Filing cabinets, stacks of paper, folding chairs (no not those chairs!), field desks, strong boxes, everything that was not actually nailed down was carted out with the screens slamming, floors creaking, and men groaning. And over it all hung Sgt Johnson's motto "The difficult we do right away; the impossible takes a little longer."
At noon the officers began to gather at the railroad sidings, accompanied by wives, relatives, friends, and well wishers. some were cheerful, many were tearful. After all, this farewell might be the last one. Next, Lt Moline appeared on the scene. She was accompanied by two newly assigned nurses: Merle L.Harper and Edythe E.MacDonald. At one o'clock the detachment marched up, smartly led by Major Broyles. Well might he be proud of his men. With full pack, steel helmet, gas mask, and entrenching tool, they looked like fighting soldiers. This was the day when every man felt that he was coming to the aid of his country.
At a quarter to two, a mud-cake sedan drove up. Out stepped Lt Osteen. Osteen was not due until the next day but, being a eager beaver, he decided to report "a little early." His diligence was richly rewarded. When he drove into Fort Sam and asked where the Third Aux was, he was told: "At the railroad siding. If you hurry you can just catch them." Osteen repacked his baggage, signed the necessary papers, kissed his wife good-by, and got on the train, all in ten minutes. Never was a transformation accomplished more expeditiously.
Meanwhile Colonel Blatt was biting his lips. The roll call showed two of his best officers missing. He argued with himself and with the dispatcher. Could the Third Aux afford to wait? The train schedule had been worked out to the last minute. At the other end of the line the Queen Mary was waiting. Delay might wreck the whole itinerary. No, there was not a moment to be lost. The conductor lifted his arm. The engineer blew his whistle. Slowly the twelve-car train began to move.
But wait, who was this, running down the road as fast as his spindly legs would carry him? Would he make it? For a moment the issue was in doubt. Then the train slowed down a little and under tremendous cheers Major Hatt swung aboard. His was all-time record. At ten o'clock he had asked for overseas duty; at two he was on the way.
Then a most extraordinary thing happened. The train was going through a grade crossing at which a jeep had pulled up. In the jeep was a brand-new Third Auxer, Captain Whitsitt. He had arrived that same morning and had reported to Colonel Blatt when the confusion was at its height. Bedeviled with a dozen tasks, Colonel Blatt had sent Whitsitt to get clearance for the Group. At a post as large of Fort Sam, this was a big job. It meant going to all the places where Third Auxers might have outstanding debts. Whitsitt started out with the enthusiasm of a man who is on his first important military mission.
Whitsitt was afoot. As long as he was on the main campus he did well enough but when it came to the outlaying offices he began to lose out. Several times he had to retrace his steps. From the Officers' Club to the laundry. From the laundry to the Post Exchange. Fro the Post Exchange to the Hospital library. From the Hospital library to the Post library. From the Post library to the filling station. From the filling station to the commissary. From the commissary to the Quartermaster. And that was as far as he got. Try as he might, he could not remember where to go next. He hailed a jeep. "Corporal, take me to the Third Aux."
"Third Aux? Where's that, Captain?"
"Over there," said Whitsitt motioning vaguely.
The jeep started up. Whitsitt looked at his watch. Ten minutes after two! He'd better hurry back. "Step on it, corporal." The jeep gathered speed, only to be forced to a halt at a grade crossing. A train was coming round the bend. Annoyed, Whitsitt settled back. No use getting run over. He lighted a cigarette and checked his list for the umpteenth time.
The locomotive rumbled past. Whitsitt glanced up. "Wish that engineer would hurry up," he said to himself, putting his papers in his pocket. The he looked more closely. Weren't those the same faces he had seen that morning? Suddenly he recognised Colonel Blatt. YE GODS!!! this was the Third Aux train! "Stop!" he yelled at the top of his voice, jumping out the jeep and clutching his musette bag which was his only possession at that moment. But the engineer paid him no heed. He probably never even saw Whitsitt. One by one, the cars rolled by. It was a moment of agonising suspense.
Then Whitsitt took matter in his own hands. He threw his musette bag to the ground pushing a protesting brakeman aside, grabbed the railing of the last car, and shinned himself aboard with an agility that would have done credit to Errol Flynn.
The Third Aux was off with a Hollywood finish!
I will skip all the details of the crossing, to which there is so much! We will jump ahead to when the Queen Mary dropped anchor at Glasgow.
There were only a few harbours n the world large enough to accommodate the Queen, and Glasgow was not one of them. In the absence of these facilities, the ship moored in the middle of the Firth, opposite the villages of Greenock and Gourock. It was late now. Impatient as they were, Third Auxers had to wait till the next day before they could debark. The Port Surgeon came aboard. There was not much that he could tell the men except life in England was grim. "Better enjoy your fresh eggs in the morning," he said. "They are the last ones you'll eat."
Debarkation started early next morning. Everything had to be loaded into lighters and then ferried ashore, a round trip of eight miles. One by one, the units lined up. At three o'clock Third Auxers fell in. With one hand on his valpak and the other on his helmet, each man jumped down onto the deck of the lighter. Only Captain Hudson stayed behind. It was his job to supervise the unloading of the bedding rolls. He battled stevedore for a week and rejoined the Group at Oxford. If it had not been for his vigilance, most of the Third Aux property would have wound up in the Glasgow black market.
Gournock was not a sight to inspire the Third Auxers. Rain was again coming down in a steady Stream and although the hour was only four o'clock, darkness was already setting in. A mid-winter day in Scotland last only eight hours and this particular day was marked by lowering skies and sudden squalls. However, even had the weather been clear there would have been little opportunity for sight-seeing because the ferry station and the railroad station were under the same roof. The waiting room was barren. The restaurant was fresh out of food. The guards spoke an unintelligible language. It was cold, dark, and wet. Third Auxers sat down on their valpaks and began to munch on K rations.
Finally, word was given to board the train. And what a train! Each car was cut up into a dozen little compartments with separate door to the outside. No lights. No heat. Small wonder that the men cheered when Scottish lassies trundled a huge teapot along the platform and began serving hot tea.
There was only one man who thought he could do without tea. With commendable foresight Major Peyton had put a bottle of ten-year-old Scotch in his musette bag when he left Fort Sam. In spite of numerous temptations, he had nursed his property for just such a low spot as this. This was the end of the travail. Now for a drink. He reached round. The bag was wet! Then the awful truth bore him. In the violent agitations of debarkation the bottle had broken and precious liquid was now seeping dismally through the layers and layers of GI underwear to christen its home soil.
On arrival in Gourock, the Group was greeted by an emissary from ETO Headquarters, Lt-Col James B.Brown, the well known plastic surgeon from St.Louis. Third Auxers were heartened to think that their arrival had been anticipated and they impatiently questioned Col Brown.
"When do we go to work, Colonel?"
"Now, don't be too eager. When I got here last summer, nobody knew I was coming, let alone what I was supposed to be doing! All I did for the first week was fill out questionnaires and put down where I had my internship!"
"What is life going to be like in Oxford, Colonel?"
"You are going to do a lot of walking because your barracks are three miles from town. It's the only thing that'll keep you warm."
While this conversation was going on, the train was slowly huffing and puffing towards Edinburgh. Third Auxers did not see this famous city. They were too much preoccupied with keeping themselves comfortable. A man could go to sleep or keep warm. Some sat with their eyes glued to the windows, trying to pierce the darkness. Alas! Their only reward was an occasional glimpse of huge signs reading: IS YOUR JOURNEY REALLY NECESSARY?By morning, every Third Auxer was fully in accord with the English housewife who sat down in a crowded bus and said: "I wish this 'ere 'itler would get married and settle down."
Morning dawned cold and dreary. Then word brought: "Short stop for breakfast in Leicester!" Third Auxers licked their chops. They hadn't had a hot mean for a day and a half and they had visions of steaming ham and eggs. They were disappointed. "Breakfast" consisted of a cup of weak tea and a dish that looked like meat pie but was actually a mixture of sawdust and horse-meat. To forgive their hunger, the men began to crack jokes. The most appropriate one was about a Texan who was trying to impress an Englishman with the size of Texas. "Why, in Texas you can get on a train in the morning and ride all day and you are still in Texas"!
"Yes.... we have trains like that in England too," was the unexpected reply.
At eleven o'clock the train pulled into Oxford. Buses were waiting, shades drawn. No Nazi spy would witness the arrival of such a supercharged organisation as the Third Aux. The shades kept spies from looking in and the Third Auxer from looking out and that was a pity because the High Street was a fascinating sight. Gothic buildings lined the winding avenue. Slender spires lent enchantment, Ancient archways beckoned strollers. But instead of strollers, there were only bicyclists, all riding in incomprehensible harmony on the wrong side of the street! The buses joined this left handed parade, threaded their way across Magdalene Bridge, and made straight for a more prosaic part of town. Right past the public house I live in for years and the long journey was finally over.
When they alighted from their buses Third Auxers saw a building of crumbling limestone and battlement-ed towers, nail-studded doors, and mullioned windows. this was Cowley Barracks, home of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, one of his Majesty's most illustrious regiments. Here, glory had resided since time immemorial.
But when a home for heroes! The nail studded doors were only the beginning. Beyond them lay a veritable maze of dungeons with sagging floors, peeling walls, sooty windows, and miniature fireplaces. Crooked, narrow hallways and winding, creaky stairs led from one cell to another. These cells were so arranged that there was one common entrance for a group of ten. The effect was that of a labyrinth with Third Auxers in the role of the rats.
A chill pervaded the atmosphere. What about a fire? Somebody had already located the coal pile. The more practical souls went to work. They measured a fireplace and calculated that it would hold approximately two handfuls of coal. Others started hunting for blankets. They found them in the coal bin. No statistician will ever figure out the number of man-hours misspent in providing warmth for these draughty catacombs. this was Elizabethan comfort.
The nurses fared a little better. They were quartered in Slade Camp, a nearby group of barracks of a more recent date. This was also the first ever place that I took my metal detector, this site also being used for a mixture of other unit throughout the war. Included Canadian units who used the hills of Shotover as a training ground. Two ATS girls had done their best. A roaring fire was going in the mess hall. The English girls were overwhelmed by the sight of seventy well-groomed American women. "I say, Peg," said one to the other, "Don't those American girls were any stockings?" English women had become so used to their cotton stockings they did not even recognise the sheer American article!
The enlisted men's barracks were across the lawn from the officers' quarters. Two large rooms accommodated the men without much crowding and each room contained an object that was worth its weight in gold: a pot bellied stove. These stoves did not have one idle moment from the Third Aux moved and they warmed not only the enlisted men may share their discomforts, officers must suffer individually.
In the few hours that were left before dark, Colonel Blatt started the ball rolling. He selected his Headquarters, inspected the mess hall, sent a truck for rations, and told the Mess Sgt to prepare the first meal. At seven o'clock a long line of hungry, dispirited Third Auxers lined up for their first hot chow in two days. One by one they filed by the antiquated stoves to have their mess kits filled with mulligan stew and canned peaches. After this repast, they went back to their dungeons through the same rain that had fallen uninterruptedly from the time they set foot in Scotland. Captain Coffey grunted: "Let's cut the barrage balloon cables and let the island sink where it may."
The next day dawned at ten o'clock and Third Auxers tackled the job of making Cowley Barracks liveable. They swept the floors, set mouse traps, and pounced on the coal pile. Their efforts were more notable for enthusiasm them discretion. When a British inspector came around a week later and found out that the coal pile was half gone, he exclaimed in great consternation: "My God! That was supposed to last until spring!"
The English in December 1942 had just recovered from the American invasion of the previous summer. These Yanks had gone on to North Africa and all that was left after their departure was the 29th Division, Colonel Slappey, to give a talk on British manners and morals. Colonel Slappey's words were repeated at a later date in Yank magazine as follows:
"If the steering wheel is on the right and the car is driven on the left, if Lucky Strikes and Camels have Woodbines and Cravel A's for competition, if the people drink tea (pronounced tay), if the coffee tastes like ink, ink writes like water, and the water tastes like iron rust and stale seltzer, then this is England.
If the hot water in the shower room is cold, if the beer is warm, if the door knobs turn to the left, if the national indoor sport is darts, if the stores open late and close early, then this is England.
If the signs read: Drink OXO or BOVRIL, or Use PERSIL, if the movies (called cinemas) show ads on the screen between pictures, if one of those ads reads: Bert the Bike Thief is still about. Have you locked your bicycle?, if all the people from six to sixty ride bikes and ride like sixty too, if the pedals on your bicycle turn forwards and backwards, if the electric bulbs have no threads, then this is England.
IF the hotels offer you a room with breakfast in bed, if you find a hot water bag in bed, if they serve you kippers or beans on toast for breakfast, if you hear the boys talk about Janet from the Daily Mirror, if the national dish seems to be fish and chips, then this is England.
And yet, there were compensations. A city of lovely spires within a ring of green meadows, Oxford possessed enough architectural treasures to fascinate the most untutored. Through the centuries, kings and queens, bishops and cardinals had left their imprint on the city. The glorious reredos of All Souls College, the stunning windows of Merton College, the awesome interior of St, Mary Magdalene, the cast Bodleian library, the priceless Ashmolean museum, these were the sights that had no peers.
The city offered more than culture. It offered a glad welcome. Staunch Oxonians had created a hospitality-and -entertainment committee whose job it was to help the Americans discover the warm spirit behind the forbidding exterior. This committee did its job so well that before a week had passed, Third Auxers had more invitations that they could accept. It was one continuous round of teas, lectures, social, musicals, dances, get-togethers, community sings, and church services. And this was all the more remarkable because food and liquor, Americans had a lot to learn. The English liquor ration in those days amounted to the equivalent of the American high ball a month.
To keep up with the constant flow of invitation, Colonel Blatt appointed Major Hatt as social chairman. A few days before Christmas Major Hatt received a call from the Rector Magnificus of the University. An officer of the Third Aux, provided he be of at least professorial rank, was invited to attend the Boar's Head ceremony. Major Graves was selected for the honour and he was privileged to witness a ritual as quaint and impressive as Oxford itself. Let him speak for himself.
"When I entered the portico of the fine old building, I had only a very vague idea of hos I was to conduct myself, hit I was not left in the dark very long. The portico fairly bulged with erudite pedagogs. They were dressed in scholastic togas and I estimated their average age at approximately sixty-five. Surveying this scene of white manes, bald heads, and flowing beards, I became profoundly conscious of my own unprofessional appearance and I tried unsuccessfully to strike a pose commensurate with the occasion. Evidently, my efforts did not go entirely unnoticed and I soon found myself talking to one of these venerable academicians.