Twenty-five years ago, standing there on the open dockside under a noonday, coastal Virginia sun that steamed the humid 96-degree atmosphere, our thoughts about War, Army medicine, and life in the Infantry were all unprintable. There was no shelter from the brightness, and the sweat soaked through clothing under the full combat pack and dripped from our wrists. A scattering of wilted Red Cross ladies offering paper cups of lemonade and melting ice did their best to spread cheer against insurmountable odds. We had been up before dawn and, staggering under the load of full equipment, a Valpak and two barracks bags, we had hurried and waited over and over again on the move that took us from the swampy staging area of Camp Patrick Henry to the embarkation docks at Hampton Roads. The large gray Navy transport that loomed above us at the dock was the familiar U.S.S. Thomas Jefferson on which we had trained in ship-to-shore amphibious techniques just two months before on a then icy Chesapeake Bay.
The 45th Division, after almost three years of training, was about to set sail finally for an overseas destination and long awaited combat. (The 45th along with its sister unit from the Southwest, the 36th Division, were the first two National Guard Divisions activated by President Roosevelt on August 1, 1940 " . . . to serve in the military service of the United States for a period of twelve consecutive months, unless sooner relieved.")
We had joined the Division over one year before at Ft. Devens, Massachusetts on the same set of orders that included George Schuessler of Columbus, Lee Powers of Savannah, and Bon Durham of Americus. The 45th, with two regiments from Oklahoma and one from Colorado, was already a veteran and seasoned outfit when it was sent from Texas to New England, and was preparing for an immediate overseas move when we were assigned to it in May 1942. But those plans fell through, as did the next ones in September 1942 (when General Patton arrived on the scene to deliver an impassioned pep-talk that included us in the task force to invade North Africa), and instead the Division had continued to train, - unendingly, it seemed to most of the men. In the summer there had been two prolonged amphibious training exercises in shore-to-shore work on Cape Cod and Martha's Vineyard: from November to March the Division had endured winter maneuvers in the bitter cold and snows of upper New York State close by the Thousand Islands: and during spring, more amphibious training with the Navy on Chesapeake Bay, and then a month of mountain training in the wilderness of Virginia's Blue Ridge chain.
It had been a strenuous but healthy, pleasant and unpleasant year. Our assignment as a Battalion Surgeon with the pith (Colorado) Regiment had been quite a change from the dull routine of hospital duty during the previous year at Ft. Benning. In medical circles, such an assignment to field duty with an infantry battalion was generally considered on a par with banishment to Outer Siberia. Field units had difficulty keeping such jobs filled since immediately on assignment there was a panicky scramble on the part of any rational medical officer to get the hell out by any means available. - whether it be by writing a congressman, aggravating a silent ulcer; feigning insanity, or admitting to homosexuality. Consequently, it was only when an outfit was on the verge of overseas shipment that these positions could be filled with unfortunates who, lifted from this post or that on sudden order were given no time to escape. Of the six of us who were sent to the 157th as new medical officers in May 1942. only two still remained a year later. But again the positions had been filled in the staging area, and this time, for the four new doctors. there was no way out.
It had been a year of medical stagnation. screening healthy young men, giving shots. holding the endless successions of sick calls: a year of headaches; sore feet, aching backs, coughs, colds, sore throats and loose bowels. "Riding the sick book" was an easy war to avoid strenuous duty or an unpleasant garbage detail, and we could always count on a full house in the Aid Station on days when a twenty mile training march was scheduled. We learned to deal with the psychosomatic ailments of the chronic complainers and goof-offs. (The sick call technique of "Iodine lake" Holnitsky, the nutty medical officer from the 3rd Battalion who sported a Groucho Marx moustache and read Plato from a paperback, was to paint everything from a sore throat to a sore rectum liberally with gentian violet.) The only elective surgery consisted of wart and mole removals: an ingrown toenail was a major case. The infrequent circumcision took on the aspect of a stomach resection, and we would draw straws for the privilege of being an "operating surgeon" again. We inspected barracks, latrines, shower room duckboards, mess halls, and pots, pans and garbage cans. A Boy Scout with a merit badge in first aid could have performed most of our medical duties.
But there had been compensations. There was pleasure in discovering the real function of the Army and participating in the activities of infantry training and tactics. Life was seldom dull. The new world of the foot soldier, with its incessant rousing, elemental English, and Rabelaisian humor was always interesting. We were fortunate in having "Uncle Charlie" Anckorn as our Regimental Commander, a stern father figure whose erect and dignified military bearing combined firm discipline with great ability, calm wisdom, understanding, and a quiet sense of humor. The 157th. under his guidance as National Guard Advisor to the State of Colorado in the prewar years and under his command since its activation as a unit, had matured into a capable regiment that functioned smoothly with a minimum of confusion and flap. Colonel Anckorn was never flustered by the inconsistencies of conflicting regulations or directives that emanated from Division or higher headquarters; he merely sidestepped or ignored them. He had the respect of everyone and the men were devoted to him and the Regiment. In that year we had discovered the meaning of esprit de corps.
The year had passed quickly. There were memories of long training marches and overnight field problems along the picturesque back roads and byways through the woodlands and orchards of the beautiful, summer and fall New England countryside. On the longer marches, after the first hours when the joking and chatter would subside there was little joy in marching for marching's sake alone, and the steady clomp of heavy GI shoes in monotonous cadence had a sedative, hypnotic effect on all the senses. There were pleasant recollections of weekend leaves spent in Boston, New York, Baltimore. Vermont and New Hampshire. Of long walks along the isolated beaches of Cape Cod during the weeks of Commando and amphibious training; of the coordinated, dawn landing at Oak Bluffs on Martha's Vineyard, wading through the heavy surf and watching the hazy, pink sky fill with the multicolored chutes of paratroopers and their equipment arriving to join us.
There was pleasure in recalling the vast expanses of clean, white snow and drifts that blanketed Pine Camp and upper New York State through the winter months: the crystalloid trees and the two-story long icicles that hung from the eaves of the barracks; the poker games in the quarters that lasted for days on end during the blizzard times when the temperature hung at a steady 30 below and training had to be suspended. There were memories of a wintry Chesapeake Bay and scrambling down the ice-coated, chain link nets over the sides of the transport ships into the bobbing landing craft below, drenched by freezing spray. Of the wild, night rides by jeep, with Father Barry, the Regimental Chaplain, dodging trees up the rocky streambeds of the Pope and other, unnamed, peaks in the Blue Ridge. And the vivid picture, as the mountain maneuvers ended, of a group of us squatting around a borrowed, field kitchen burner unit on a sloping, desolate clearing at three in the morning, - drenched by a steady drizzle, brewing K-ration coffee in our canteen cups; too miserable to move, to wet to care, too tired to complain. We could only stare, as if in a trance, at the flickering blue flames and wonder if the night would ever end, or if we should ever be warm and dry again.
But all that was behind us and the last two weeks of confinement in the mosquito-infested area at Patrick Henry, cut off from family and the outside world, and aggravated by the endless examinations and equipment checks of the staging process, had played havoc with morale. The men were irritable, exhausted and over trained; they were anxious to get moving, anywhere. The long waits were frustrating, and the unbearable, smothering heat on the embarkation dock was the final indignity.
Moving at a snail's pace. we filed up the gangway and were checked aboard. It was better there, but not much. The officers, on the upper decks, were crowded eight to a small stateroom the men were crammed like sardines below decks and into the holds that were already filled with supplies, weapons, vehicles and equipment. When the ship pulled away from the dock, it was only to move a short way out into the harbor where it dropped anchor. We remained there for four more days. Each morning and each night we practiced the familiar boat drills; over the sides and down the cargo nets with full equipment, into the waiting landing craft, around to the other side of the ship where we scrambled up other nets back on board again. We felt like caged monkeys. Then on the morning of June 6, 1943 we awakened to the throb of engines and blasts of whistles. We moved slowly out of the harbor, and the giant armada of more than 100 ships that carried the 45th Division and all of its attached supporting units, headed out into the Atlantic.
(c) The Doctor's Lounge, Muscogee County (Georgia) Medical Bulletin, Vol XX, No. 1, 1963, p20