Tag Archives: 1943

March 5, 1943 . . . to Texas!

Dear Folks,

Well I’ve finally been shipped out way down here deep in the heart of Texas. We left Tuesday afternoon at 3:30 P.M. and arrived here this morning at 10:00 A.M., with a swell military reception. About 500 boys came down with me, and the shipment was claimed to be the largest out of Ft. Devens. There’s so much to tell that I’ll probably have to wait until after the war to tell you; but I’ll do my best now.

To begin with we rode on a Boston and Maine day coach that saw its prime 75 years ago. Nothing but the best for the army, you know. However, the other cars were all more modern and it was better than walking. Leaving Mass., we hit the corner of Vermont, then thru New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Missouri, Oklahoma, then Texas. I might have missed one or two states, but it doesn’t matter. We hit snow in every state except Texas, which I think is God’s country. (It might be a little of the devil’s too, for it is so hot down here!) We passed under the Appalachian Mts. By way of the Hoosac tunnel, and crossed the Mississippi river. After viewing the country all the way down here, except for Texas, I was thankful that I lived in Massachusetts, for you don’t realize the poverty that most of the people live in. Most all shacks we passed were inhabited by colored people, and a few whites. Yet they seemed to be happy and waved to us as we passed by.

Among some of the things of interest we saw were the oil wells of Oklahoma; also the biggest factory I’ve ever seen, later found out to be a Douglas aircraft plant; also oil refineries, brick kilns, miles and miles of flat land, and finally real cactus.

Camp Swift is one of the newest army camps in the country and is very nice. It is a camp for specialists and practically everyone is a sergeant or a commissioned officer. We’re the second group in here and pretty near all of us will have stripes (arm stripes) shortly. We were started on our basic training, that is, some of the most important commands.

I guess I’ll turn in now and continue tomorrow, March 6, 1943.  Here’s my new address. This is permanent, so please write as I am anxious to hear the news from back home.

Pvt. C.M. Bernier U.S.A.

A. Battery, 922 F.A. Btn.

A.P.O. 445

Camp Swift, Texas

The F.A. stands for Field Artillery, the Btn. stands for Battalion, the A.P.O. stands for Army Post Office

I don’t know why I didn’t make the Signal Corps, but I’ll do my best here. The Field Artillery are the boys who man the big guns behind the lines. I will probably be assigned to a gun crew but I’ll have to wait to find out.

I just got back from supper, and had some ice water. What a treat that is! I’d give a dollar for a quart of Boston water. Down here it’s awfully flat and you don’t seem to satisfy your thirst.

By the way, please send me my Polaroid sun glasses, my ring if you have it, an extra bath towel, and about ten coat hangers. Try and send them as soon as you can. Tell all the fellows my address, and that I’ll write as soon as I get enough to tell about.

We’re confined to our barracks for two weeks, because of measles, colds, etc. They do this to every new group in camp. Of course that doesn’t apply to us while we’re training.

If there’s any news you’d like to know ask me in your letter and I’ll answer them. I guess I’ll sign off now with love, because I miss you all.

Murray.

Damn heavy shoes!

I open the first age-stained envelope dated MAR 1, 9 PM, 1943, from Ayer, MASS, Fort Devens STA., with the word “FREE” handwritten in place of a stamp, addressed to Mr. and Mrs. J.J. Bernier, 10 Pond Street, Dorchester, Massachusetts.  No zip code needed.

Dear Folks,

Haven’t anything to do this afternoon so I thought I’d write. I’ll begin from the time I left home. Arriving at the Draft Board, I was given charge of the train ticket for the four of us. We left North Station at 8:15 and arrived here at 9:05. An army truck met us at the station and brought us to the receiving office. We were then checked off and sent to a supply depot. There we received raincoats, towels, and toilet-kids. My raincoat would just about fit Frank MacLean and myself. From there we were taken to our barracks and issued bedding. These barracks are two-story, wooden buildings, sleeping about 60 apiece. We have double-decker steel cots, mattresses, two blankets, two sheets, a pillow, pillow-case, and a comforter. It’s very comfortable and I always get a good night’s sleep. We were also given mess kits and over-shoes.

After lunch, we were taken to a school-like building and given our I.Q. tests. These consist of three tests, each of 150 questions. The first one is a mechanical aptitude test; the second is a radio telegraphy test; and the third is a General Aptitude test. The marks you receive go with you thru out (sic) your army career and are considered at every advancement you may get. The results are not made known to you, but I think I did fairly well on them.

The same night we were marched up to the dispensary and given a vaccination and some kind of a shot. The next morning everybody had stiff arms, from the effects of the shot. This wore off in a couple of days and all were happy.

We then were interviewed by soldiers who are trained in that line of work, and who can get all the information they want from you. The fellow that interviewed me was concerned about my telephone experience and recorded it all on my card. After this we went to a ware house and got our uniforms. It’s quite a place. You go in one door and come out another a half an hour later with all your clothing. Here is a list of the equipment:

2 winter uniforms – pants and shirt

2 summer     “            “                    “

2 fatigue        “           “                    “

1 winter hat

1 summer hat

1 fatigue hat

1 helmet hat

1 helmet

2 pairs of winter underwear – long drawers

3     “         summer        “

3     “         work socks

3      “        dress socks

2     “         damn heavy shoes

1 field jacket

1 blouse – dress coat

1 overcoat

1 pair of gloves

1 belt

2 neckties

4 handkerchiefs

1 mess kit – which we had to turn in

1 canteen

1 barracks bag – to put everything in

1 basic field manuel (sic)

We were given the afternoon off to roam around. The next morning I was bagged for K.P. by a very polite sergeant, who woke me up at 4:40 A.M., while the rest of the crowd I came with was shipped out. Friday was the longest day I ever put in, fourteen and a half hours of hard work. That nite the barracks was full again with fellows from Worcester. Today they all left, and I’m practically alone again.

Well that’s about all I can think of for now, but I’ll write later.         Love, Murray

Elbow Grease and Cookies!

It seems that nothing would stop my father from writing home, not being in a tent, not “forgetting” to bring his pen! Letters sent home the last half of May, 1943 focus on the drudgery of camp life (and the seemingly endless guard, cleaning, kitchen duties!) and the smaller things, like not being able to buy treats.

“If we had any more inspections I would have dropped from nervous exhaustion. We have to shake our blankets out daily and five minutes later they are full of dust. They should call this Camp Dust instead of Camp Swift.”

Despite the drudgery, he always seems to keep his dry sense of humor.

“Monday I was hit with my old faithful “K.P.” I would rather walk twenty miles than do K.P. It’s really rough.”

K.P., or “Kitchen Patrol/Police,” is the equivalent of being a busser/dish-washer/floor scrubber at a fast-food restaurant…with no chance of earning tips!

“I got your letter yesterday with the dollar in it. Thanks a lot. Paydays are few and far between in the army . . . . The candy & cookie situation here is quite desperate, as the P.X.s have very little stock and what they have is bought up by fellows leaving for overseas. Any donations will be most gratefully received.”

The thought of a “desperate” cookie situation initially makes me chuckle, but the reality of not having them available because of the war situation makes me feel guilty about what I have in my cupboards right now. “Cupboards”? Does anyone use that term anymore?

When the blankets have been shaken and the kitchen cleaned, there is still work to do:

“Talking about windows, every Friday nite we have to clean all the windows in the barracks for inspection. Besides we have to get down on our hands and knees and scrub the floor. So you see I’ll be quite useful when I get home. If and when I do get home I want you to make me wait outside the kitchen about fifteen minutes before meals, as I might get too lonesome for the army. We have lines for everything, even when we go to town. When I get home I might get too soft if I get right into a movie or can eat immediately.”

And frequently there’s the talk of going home . . .

Flowers for Mother

I try to imagine the changing expression on the face of this young man as he enters the dance hall in May of ’43:

“We finally had our dance Friday nite and although it was nice, it wasn’t quite as nice as I had expected it to be. At any rate it was nice to get out of camp . . . The girls were nice but kind of old for us young squirts. It seems that the young girls are either away at school or are employed in defense work.”

Looking for love. I wonder how old is “kind of old.” Cougars? I shudder.

For his next letter, he clearly went out of his way to find something special for Mother’s Day. 

“Here’s a few more flowers for you on Mother’s Day. I hope you had a nice one. I said some extra prayers for you at Mass this morning. We went to Austin over the weekend and it was the first time I’ve been in a civilian church since leaving home. It was small but nice and reminded me a little of home.”   Touches of homesickness become a common thread. The frequency of his letter writing–often daily–reminds me of my own daily Facebook time. I, too, feel a longing to be . . . to stay connected with the people who mean the most to me.

Gas, tennis, measles and dirt.

Betwee April 4th and 8th of 1943, Dad experienced his first gas mask drills. The first came after some tragic news of an Engineering Lieutenant and several of his men who were killed when a faulty fuse failed to trigger at the right moment.

“The other night I was tired and went to bed early. Some of the fellows came back from the P.X. [post exchange…the army equivalent of a department store] crying and laughing at the same time. Somebody either planned or accidentally dropped a case of tear gas. Immediately the alarm was given to put on our masks. In my first experience with gas, where was I but in bed, reading a magazine with my gas mask on.”

I want to know what magazine he was reading! The second drill came after receiving the results of his IQ test; he explains that “If you get 110 you qualify for Officers candidate school,” and he earned a 122/150.  “When we got back we were told to prepare for a tornado. We had to wear gas masks, rain coats and helmets.” Fortunately, the tornado did not manifest, and the drill was called off. I wonder how the masks would have helped had the storm struck!

In these letters I start to sense that this young soldier may be a bit of a perfectionist. After apologizing for the quality of his writing, “(This penmanship is very poor as I am writing in bed),” he makes a generous offer to his younger sister…but with conditions!  “Tell Kay that if she gets the urge to play tennis, she can use my racket; but make sure she loans it to no one and always puts it in the press when not in use.”  I wonder how this proclivity will affect his behavior as his time in the army passes. I recognize hints of this trait in my oldest son, now the age my Dad would have been.

Dad wraps up these letters with a true sign of the times:  “Three out of six barracks in the company are quarantined on account of measles & mumps. Never a dull moment here,”  and then throws in the bit of humor that I will continue to search out in his messages home. “They say you have to eat a ton of dirt before you die. I’m well on my way to my last few pounds.”

Boston boy in for an eye-opener

In 1943, just a month after his 19th birthday, Dad boarded a train to “somewhere” with a toothbrush and a change of underwear. He had joined the army. In one of his first letters home, I discover both his early sense of humor and his sheltered naiveté:

“To begin with we rode on a Boston and Maine day coach that saw its prime 75 years ago. Nothing but the best for the army, you know. However, the other cars were all more modern and it was better than walking. Leaving Mass., we hit the corner of Vermont, then thru New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Missouri, Oklahoma, then Texas. I might have missed one or two states, but it doesn’t matter. We hit snow in every state except Texas, which I think is God’s country. (It might be a little of the devil’s too, for it is so hot down here!) We passed under the Appalachian Mts. by way of the Hoosac tunnel, and crossed the Mississippi river. After viewing the country all the way down here, except for Texas, I was thankful that I lived in Massachusetts, for you don’t realize the poverty that most of the people live in. Most all shacks we passed were inhabited by colored people, and a few whites. Yet they seemed to be happy and waved to us as we passed by.”

The train’s destination: Camp Swift, Texas. He describes his new daily routine:

“We get up at 6:30; fall out for revile at 6:45, and eat at 7:00. About 7:30 we fall out again and have about an hour of physical exercise, and I do mean exercise. We do all kinds of body bends and twists. Then we form in a circle, walk then run, then do all kinds of torture movements such as squatting down and walking, or walking on our hands and toes. After this we have classes on various things such as courtesy and customs, motors, hygiene, the artillery guns, and other army methods. We eat dinner at 12:00. After dinner we usually have a few more classes, or a training film on different things. Then we usually go for a little walk about 4:00. It’s not so easy to keep step marching in sand. Monday, we did a bit of wood marching. First of all we had to leap across a pretty wide ditch. I didn’t realize it was so deep or wide until I was half way over. I made it all right but some fellows just aren’t jumpers. Poor fellows! Then we do double time running up and down hills, over rocks, and over a log, which is a bridge over a ditch. After going through that I think I’ll give up cigarettes. Boy! was I winded.”

Torture movements! I know Dad played tennis back in his high school days . . . I’ll have to ask if that was the extent of his physical activity before his army days. At least he wasn’t one of the “poor fellows” who couldn’t jump; perhaps he should have played basketball!

I suddenly realize how difficult it will be to find the focus of this memoir writing. So many letters, so much information, so much still to ask . . .