The following is an excerpt from Justifiable Pride – A World War II Memoir by William D. Stevens and published by Jemel Books, Lincoln, Nebraska.
The company started packing the next day. Gray asked if he could buy my alarm clock, his wife needed one and they were hard to obtain. I hesitated since not sending it home might indicate that I wouldn’t be coming back, an attitude no soldier should have, then said okay and removed it from the box in which I was mailing my undershirts and shorts to Lincoln “because they were white and we have to wear olive drab ones overseas.”
“By now most of the division has gone,” my final letter from Ft. Jackson reported. “Don’t worry about me. Others appear to have done the dirtiest fighting and probably old YD will never see combat anyway. All is well.”
Those lines, written to reassure them, didn’t express my true feelings. I believed old YD would see combat, probably in Europe after a brief stop in England. It might be true that the dirtiest fighting was over. Allied units occupied part of northern France and had started advancing south and east; surely Germany would not be able to hold out much longer, nor want to. On the other hand, her leaders were fanatics and they commanded well-trained armies. Even a mop-up operation could be dangerous. If our destination was the Far East, going from island to island might take months. Having received no instruction in jungle warfare, it seemed unlikely that we would be sent to the Pacific, but logic didn’t always prevail in the armed forces.
On August 19th, in the haze of early dawn, Company E assembled on the parade ground with the rest of 2nd Battalion. Everyone had a duffle bag in addition to his weapon and his back pack or musette bag. “Did Helen like the alarm clock?” I asked Gray as we stood waiting. “I don’t know,” he answered; “she spent the weekend in tears begging me not to leave. I tried to explain to her that there’s no turning back now.”
Dorgan overheard us. His wife was in Columbia also. “That’s right,” he said with sadness in his voice, “there’s no turning back now. And for some, probably, there’ll be no coming back.”
Platoons were forming; I saw Mahlin organizing ours. The dim light made everything seem unreal. I felt like a spectator watching a strange, ghostly drama. It was hard to realize that the division would soon be doing what it had prepared for so thoroughly. Dorgan’s remark – “For some, probably, there’ll be no coming back” – lingered in my mind.
One by one our companies marched to and boarded a troop train. The battalion’s lieutenants rode together in a Pullman car. We piled our gear in the ladles’ restroom, then located the seats assigned to us. Before long the train began moving and Fort Jackson faded out of sight.
A kitchen crew came down the aisle with breakfast: scrambled eggs, bacon, bread and butter, an orange and coffee. Decks of cards appeared; Poker, Pitch, Black Jack and Gin Rummy games began. I played awhile, read, dozed, and gazed at the passing countryside. The battalion S-3 announced that we were en route to Camp Shanks, New York. In mid-afternoon, KP’s brought another meal. At 10 p.m. each platoon leader checked on his men. Most of mine were in army sleeping car bunks. I chatted with several, signed the duty roster to show I’d been around, headed back, and in my berth, listening to the wheels clickety clack as they raced along the rails, wondered what Fate had in store for General Paul’s 26th Division – and for me.
At Camp Shanks we learned how to censor letters and were issued impregnated clothing for use in event of a chemical attack. A few days later I went with the regiment’s advance party to New Jersey, and by boat from there to Manhattan’s “Pier 42, U. S. Army Port of Embarkation.” A captain called out names; when he reached Stevens, I joined the line ascending an enclosed flight of narrow stairs. The duffle bag on my shoulder bumped from one wall to the other as I staggered up the steps; my binoculars case and gas mask container swung back and forth wildly; the butt of my carbine banged noisily against a metal railing. At the top, one corner of the sack holding my bag lunch gave way and a hard-boiled egg flew to the concrete floor, where it disintegrated into a thousand pieces. The lieutenant beside me, grinning, said, “I hope that’s not an omen of how things will be overseas.” I hoped so too. At the gangplank somebody handed me a slip marked V3. “Your room number,” he mumbled.
Our ship, the Satumia, had been an Italian luxury liner. V3 was the bridal suite, which I would share with 15 or 16 other lieutenants. Metal bunks rose three-high along the walls. Gene Tunney and his bride, we were told, occupied this cabin – minus the extra beds, presumably – on their honeymoon. After dumping my stuff, I stood on the deck with Frank Beattie looking at New York City. A ferry boat loaded with passengers crept by. “Are they proud of us, knowing we’re soldiers about to go overseas” he asked; “Grateful for what we’re doing.” My answer was, “Neither, perhaps; maybe they don’t care.”
When the regiment arrived, I led E Company to its area, helped them get settled, and remained there until Albertson relieved me.
The next day the Saturnia and other transports moved slowly into the Atlantic, where navy craft of various shapes and sizes took places around them. Our “armada,” according to a YD history published later, consisted of 101 vessels “of all classes:” aircraft carriers, luxury liners, destroyers, cruisers “and humble victory ships.” It was an impressive sight. We appeared to be going north-east, toward Europe, I assumed. Where in Europe? England? France? The Mediterranean?
Officers ate in the main dining salon, at tables with linen napkins and tablecloths. Its mirrors and murals had been boarded over; even so, the room was fantastic. So were our meals, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, served by Italian waiters in white jackets. What. a way to travel!
On our third night at sea I was Regimental Duty Officer. About 4 a.m., standing alone in an unenclosed area near the stern, I recalled the happiness of my growing up years and pondered why a peace-loving person like me should be crossing the ocean to wage war against another nation. I felt no affection for the Germans – the aggression of their Fuhrer had caused all this but I didn’t hate them either. Was I supposed to?
Listening to unseen waves lap at our ship as it moved silently through the darkness, I hoped for a safe return, partly because so much of what I’d done before my military service began was in preparation for the future, partly because I knew my death would be such a devastating blow to Mother and Dad; then, for the first time, gave serious thought to the fact that I might be badly wounded or killed. Would a bullet ripping into my body cause intense pain? Would I cry out or remain silent? Realize that death was approaching? If my life ended, would I then be with God? Is He aware of me on this ocean liner far from home, I wondered. Will He help me meet whatever challenges come my way? Will I measure up to those challenges, or be fearful and falter? Do I have sufficient courage to lead the platoon against experienced Nazi troops? Will I know what to do, when called upon to face them, and be able to do it? My greatest concern, as I contemplated what lay ahead, was not death but failure.
Time passed slowly. We had 15 minutes of calisthenics each day. Books, magazines, movies and a mini-PX were available. Somebody played an harmonica; another sang; clusters of enlisted men shot Craps. Once in awhile, leaning on a railing, I surveyed the vast expanse of water that stretched in every direction as far as the eye could see, and at the ships surrounding us. Could a submarine slip by them? It seemed unlikely; still, U-Boat commanders were clever and had struck many a convoy. I wasn’t worried; but knowing our foe might be out there, waiting for an opportunity to destroy us, brought home the reality of war.
Occasionally planes flew over; and, twice, blimps headed in the opposite direction. I read The Apostle, The Razor’s Edge, My Son, My Son and several mystery stories; saw what appeared to be a whale; and one afternoon, although it was off-limits, strolled nonchalantly into navy officers “country,” where a friendly ensign showed me around. Now and then the sea was rough and people got sick. My 24th birthday passed unnoticed because I purposely kept quiet about it.
Censoring letters the men of First Platoon wrote made me feel like an intruder peeking into their private lives. I tried to skip the personal parts but, without intending to, found myself reading the tender sentiments some of them contained. Many reflected the writer’s deep religious faith. None revealed fear, though one said, “I know I will never see you again.”
When we emerged from the bridal suite on September 7th, 1944 land was not more than a mile or two away and our ship had dropped anchor. O’Neal called us together and gave instructions for disembarking. “The city you are looking at,” he stated, “is Cherbourg, on the coast of France.”
I scrutinized It with my field glasses. The harbor was full of damaged vessels, a few upright, some upside down, others listing or floating on their sides. Troops were being taken ashore on huge rafts. I walked to the edge of the deck and saw a cargo net that extended to the waves below. “Good Lord,” I murmured, “how am I going to get down this thing with all my equipment?” The enclosed stairway at Pier 42 had been difficult enough.
By the time our turn came, rain was falling. I put my carbine over one shoulder, my duffle bag over the other, climbed across the railing, and began my descent. The ship rocked from side to side. Our raft, riding the swells, seemed tiny and far away. My duffle bag made me top-heavy. The binoculars case and gas mask container hanging from my neck caught in the ropes of the cargo net; every so often my carbine did, too. Wouldn’t it be great, I thought – sarcastically, but not without concern as the rain continued – if my hands slipped and I fell into the ocean!
No mishaps occurred. When the raft was full, it started for the shore. Ahead lay Fortress Europe.