Sunday, May 30, 2010

Experiences in World War II - Raymond Bennight

I was drafted into the army on February 4, 1941. I hadn't even thought about going into the service yet, as the US wasn't involved as yet. I was the oldest on the job and the first to get called.

The day of induction and the next day was a real nightmare. We were shuffled along like animals and given shots and vaccinations, issued clothing after being transported to Fort Ord (near Monterrey, California). Then out in the “company” street in the rain we were taught how to make a bed at 1 o'clock in the morning. We finally got to bed and were up again at 4:30 a.m., for our first meal with the Army, breakfast in a mess kit! What a mess! Rolled oats, milk, fried eggs, toast all piled in one compartment, most unappetizing. I soon learned to handle the equipment and those who would try to “foul things up” for a newcomer.

The first Sunday I was in, some of my friends drove down from Oakland to see me, and I was on KP. Peeling potatoes and dressed in blue fatigues, I was a laughable sight, and laugh they did. Me, too!

I gained some identity fairly soon and was sent on some jobs around the base where my skills could be used. One day I was “loaned” to the engineers to back their semi-trailers onto RR flatcars to ship them to another area. It was easy for me, an old truck driver anyway. Then another job came up when Captain Parks wanted his personal car worked on. A Japanese boy “Yoshida” and I went to his home and overhauled the engine.

I started in the Army at the pay rate of $21 per month. After the first month-and-a-half, the base pay was raised to $50 and I soon was promoted so I could start to save a little toward the day when I would again be a civilian and able to get started again.

In August a couple of us were sent to school in St. Louis, Missouri. It was a great experience, since we were already mechanics and learned some of the finer “touches” so later I became a teacher of carburetor and ignition in a large military school near Tacoma, Washington. While there in St. Louis, I made a cruise on a large paddle wheeler down the Mississippi for a few miles and back. One day while on a street downtown, my friend and I were approached by an old gentleman who took us to a restaurant and bought us a nice meal. The people were very friendly. While there I also got the chance to make a trip to northern Missouri. I went to Unionville to see some of mom's family, and especially one of her sisters about my age that I had known for a while in California when she and her dad had come out for a visit.

When I returned back to California after graduating from the school in November, I learned that I was eligible for release, as I had been too old when I was drafted. So I applied and was sent for a “physical.” They promptly put me in the hospital at Stockton Airfield. My company had moved to Stockton while I was away at school. The x-ray had spots, which they said was tuberculosis, and I was put into “isolation” and they tried their best to get me to be sick, but I insisted that I was okay, and they had made a mistake. Finally they took some more x-rays and sent them to Denver, Colorado to be read. Some system, but this was only 1941. They determined that I had some scar from something, but was okay to be released. So after 12 days in the hospital I was released and transferred to the reserves. Well this all happened just 12 days before Pearl Harbor, so you know in a short while I was back in the service again.

This time instead of being in B Company, I was sent to C Company at Fort Lewis, Washington. While there I was able to visit the house in Tacoma where I had lived when I was about 9 and 10 years old. I made some really good friends there, too. Earl and Helen Ballard, Frank Verbraeken (from Portland). Earl and I went to Portland a few times with Frank, and he taught us some of the fine points of golf and I proceeded to teach them to play “bridge.” Earl and Helen had just been married a little while when he got called, so she moved up to Tacoma from San Francisco to stay until we were shipped overseas.
The Army built a huge shop building (600 feet square) a few miles south at a place called Camp Murray. We (our company) started a giant mechanical school there and our colonel said no way would we ever leave until the war was over because we were able to teach every phase of mechanics and carpentry and upholstering. Welding, crank shaft grinding, you name it, we had someone in our company of 312 who could do it. We felt like that would be a good place to stay. I had been promoted to T3 (same as staff sergeant) and was teaching carburetor and ignition school and felt like I was doing something worthwhile. We soon found out that when General Patton wanted the best outfit for maintenance on his tanks, etc., he got what he wanted, school or no school.

Right - Ray Bennight

Well we left for maneuvers in Virginia to get us ready to go overseas, where to we didn't know. While in Virginia, we were introduced to the most substandard conditions imaginable. Even the most hardy of us got dysentery or some other sickness. I don't know what they were preparing us for because, when left on our own overseas, we were able to fair much better with only one time of much sickness. We finally moved to Camp Kilmer, New Jersey for a few days. I got to visit New York City and look in some phone books and see if any Bennights had come that way. None had remained. In fact, I had looked in all the large cities and found none.

I also got to go to Washington DC for a visit and still thrill at some of the things I saw, especially looking down the side of the Washington Monument from the top, 500 feet straight down. After many more shots and clothing checks, we boarded ship, an Italian ship, which had been seized by the English and was manned by them. This was the flagship of the convoy and our home for the next 18 days (it is November 1942 now). Also General Patton's crew were on this ship (the 1st Armored Division). It soon became apparent that most of the men were going to be “seasick,” so I got guard duty and ended up being one of the permanent sergeants of the guard for the rest of the trip. Well, we circled so much to throw the enemy off that we couldn't tell where we were going, but it was finally announced that some of the other ships had invaded French Morocco in Northern Africa, and we would be landing at Casablanca, Morocco.

It was pleasant weather there, like southern California, only a little warmer. Our landing was uneventful, but a couple days later we were in an air raid and some of our equipment ships in the port were sunk. One of our first jobs was to clean up and put back into service some of the vehicles that had been fished out of the sea. They were a mess, covered with black heavy fuel oil and already corroded from the saltwater. We had to disassemble, clean each part and oil and reassemble. It was slow, but we salvaged a lot of equipment.

Because we were short on transportation, the Army “took over” a lot of civilian vehicles that had been idled for a couple of years for lack of fuel. The people were paid for them. We got the job of making them (the vehicles) run, which in some cases was a pretty good trick.
3rd picture, Ray Bennight in middle

One time one of our boys towed one into the shop and was putting gasoline into the tank (he thought), only it was running on the floor and down a gutter about a hundred feet to where another fellow was welding. We just about ran out of fire extinguishers that time. Our colonel's name was Colonel Hopping and he was hopping mad for sure that time.

We stayed in Casablanca several months, making living quarters and offices in the France auto building, which had been the “Citroen” dealer before the war. During this time I was sent with a crew of men and equipment to move vehicles from ship side as they were hoisted to the ground from the large ships. This involved hooking up batteries, adding fuel and getting them started and driving a couple blocks to a field. They were then picked up by the company that they were issued to. It was interesting, but sometimes a strange monster of a vehicle would be unloaded and we would get behind in our work trying to find the battery, etc. One such time a large shovel was lowered and I finally got the thing running and started pulling levers to find one that would make it go. I almost hit the ship with the bucket, but fortunately I found the Horse brake in time to stop its swing. After I got it moving, I took it over to the lot and tried scooping up some dirt, but it was hard packed and when I swung around and dumped and a few pebbles dropped out, I really got a laugh from the other guys.

I was able to visit Rabad (Rabat), the capital of French Morocco, and many other places nearby, like Port Lyanty and Mekness, Marakesh, Sidi, Kel, Abis. Near Rabad was a large forest of trees from which the harvest is cork, the bark is cork. Casablanca, as well as the other towns and cities of much size are built with white stucco and tile roofs like the Spanish buildings of California. Casablanca is quite large and was a really interesting site, as we could see it for a long time from the Atlantic Ocean before we actually did land. There is a really old Catholic cathedral and it's quite large.

While there we were changed from General Patton's 1st Armored division and assigned to the 7th Army. We still retained a tank transport company that we did maintenance for. We had them all the way through the war and they would tow their trucks over 100 miles to get back to our shop, where they knew we could fix it.

We finally got transfer orders and left on a big convoy. I was assigned to bring up the rear and I had a Jeep loaded with tools and all kinds of small parts, generators, starters, fuel pumps, water pumps, etc. Also an acetylene welding outfit, all kinds of fan belts. I couldn't come into camp at night until all the other trucks got in. I didn't have a problem I couldn't fix, but was always last to get in and last to leave in the morning. We went over the Atlas Mountains and on past Algiers to a town called Constantine, a beautiful place just off the edge of the Sahara Desert. The town (city) was built on the flats above a deep canyon. The canyon was narrow enough to have a bridge over it connecting the two parts of town. Some of our pilots would fly under the bridge for a lark. We set up shop on the desert or south side and I was put in charge of the battlefield recovery platoon. We had six 10-ton wreckers and four 4-ton wreckers assigned to us. Also we had a big 10-wheeler diesel truck pulling a 24-wheel trailer that had a winch with one-inch cable and could drag a crippled 40-ton tank onto the trailer. I drove this rig. Our job was to go out into the desert about 25-50 miles away and bring the crippled tanks back into Constantine to a rail head and load them onto flatcars and ship them to Algiers to either junk or put back into service. It was hard and interesting work. We felt we were doing some good. We had some guys with tents and with a kitchen out in the desert and we got one of the abandoned tanks running and then used it for a “wrecker” to pull other tanks out to the road so we could load them on the trailer. I hauled all of them out, as we only had one trailer rig. One of the 10-ton wreckers traveled with me all the time to help load and unload, and then load the junk on flatcars at the railroad yard. Donald Baer (we called him “Grisly Bear”) drove the wrecker. He was from Sandpoint, Idaho, and about the only one I ever heard of again when we got home finally. We put railroad tracks on the front for a bumper and he could push a tank around sideways if it wouldn't go on the trailer straight. We were out on our own and away from strictly military life.

We pretty well cleaned up that battlefield and were sent on to Tebessa, Tunisia, not far from Biserte one way, and not far from Tunis the other direction. I managed to visit Tunis a few times. It is a large town with streetcars and all. Also we got to visit Carthage, or what is left of it. It is the place mentioned in the Bible where the conquerors sewed the fields with salt so no crops would grow. We didn't do much in this area except get ready for the invasion of Sicily. We put tools and parts into square 5-gallon cans and soldered them shut to keep out seawater, and so they could be floated to get them to shore. We were all set to go, but got our orders canceled because we were 95% sick with dysentery, etc. I hadn't noticed, as I don't catch things easily, it was winter again and cold in the tents with no heat, so I built a stove from a round 5-gallon can and burned crank case drainings in it. Sure made our tent warm, but the black soot didn't do much good for the laundry on the outside lines. From this beginning some of the others built really fancy stoves. This all came to an end soon, however, as we shipped out for Naples, Italy (we missed Sicily altogether).

We loaded all of our truck trailers, etc., on a Navy LST (landing ship transport). It is like a big, flat-bottomed ferry boat in some ways. We had 15 semi-vans on the lower deck along with some trucks and wreckers. My truck was on deck along with many others. The sleeping quarters had 5 hammock-like things hanging from the ceiling, one above the other, metal pipes around them to hold them in shape and to use for a ladder. I never did get into one of them, as we soon got into a storm you wouldn't believe on the Mediterranean Sea. The men who tried to sleep on those bunks got sick and vomited all over the floor. No one could stand up on the slick floor, and then the ship would come up out of the water and slam back down on the water. The chains holding the bunks broke and the guys fell on the messy floor and were sicker than ever. I didn't get sick, and couldn't get anything to eat, either. No one was working in the kitchen either (all sick). The waves looked like they were 100 feet high, and the top 20 feet would break over the top of the ship. Our vehicles on top had heavy damage from the saltwater. The pot metal carburetors and the fuel pumps really corroded fast. Fortunately, the storm let up before we got to Italy, and it was a pleasant relief to pull into Naples Bay, past the Isle of Capri and to see Mount Vesuvius with smoke coming out the top. Naples is a large city and white stucco over rock buildings. All the city around the docks was bombed out during other air raids. We set up shop in the bombed-out place where the Otis Elevator Company had been. The floor was all that was left. We used tarps to make a roof and walls. We stayed there several months and used a nearby building for barracks. While there, some of us got acquainted with some of the civilians and they cooked chicken and homemade noodles. It was a pretty good dish for a change from Army food.

Mount Vesuvius erupted while there and at night we could see the streams of lava coming down the mountain to the villages around the base of the mountain. My friend, Carl Bastady, and I drove out to one of the villages and the lava was barely moving and incredibly hot. The pressure of it against 2-feet thick rock walls was so much the wall would fall down and buildings collapse. The ash from the volcano had built up to about a foot deep. It is easy to see how the Lord destroyed Pompeii when it was ripe in iniquity. Just buried it over 50 feet deep in lava ash from Mount Vesuvius. I went on a tour of Pompeii after it had been dug out and the murals on the walls are still there and the mosaic work is still intact. The evidence of the wickedness of the people shows, too. I would like to show some of the places I have seen to my family, but it is a pretty remote possibility.

We spent the spring and summer in Naples and I made some side trips to Rome and Capua and Salerno, where the great and terrible invasion battle was staged. In Capua (a jewelry-making town) I bought some cameos and sent them home to mom. She gave some to my sisters and to my wife, Zina. The swimming in the warm waters of the Mediterranean was fun. I'm not much of a swimmer, though. While there, we had air raids, but the Army put out smoke screens so the enemy couldn't see the target. One night the bombs were coming right toward us (you could see the flashes). The last one blew up about a block away, fortunately. I was on guard on the roof of this 3-story building. The building was strong with 2-feet thick rock walls at the bottom. The walls wouldn't fall, but when hit the floors all fall to the basement, leaving an empty shell. I went to an R&R area (rest and recuperation) on the southern coast of Italy. Nothing to do, just loaf and swim for a week. It was a welcome change, though.

I did heavy work in all parts of the shop and replaced brake shoes on the 24-wheel tank transport trailers. I took a 10-ton wrecker and turned the trailer upside down, and after all repairs were completed, turned it upright and gave it a road test to see if all the brakes worked. I also did a lot of work on the diesel engine trucks that pulled these trailers.

We finally got everything packed up again and knew that we were on the move again. They never say where for security reasons, but when we boarded ship again, we knew it wasn't back to Morocco. Had to be France. We went past Corsica and landed east of Marseilles. The invasion forces had gone in ahead of us and they used huge gliders that were towed aloft and then silently coasted into France and were abandoned everywhere you looked. They hauled in lots of men and machine guns and Jeeps. When it was safe, we moved up to Besancon, France and started a shop, but only stayed for a couple months. This place was in the mountains right on the edge of the Alps, only 40 miles from Switzerland. We soon moved further north to Nancy, France and spent a cold, frozen winter there. I worked on some motorized cranes and did other heavy maintenance in this area. One of our men, Leonard Mintey, learned French really well and got a girlfriend and decided to be released from the Army in France and get married there. (He did that and later brought her home to the States, but after a few years, they were divorced. He lives in Palmdale, California.)

About the time of the “Battle of the Bulge” we moved up near the Rhine River near Mannheim. I had to drive a large truck crane so couldn't travel with the company, as the truck was too big to go through the underpasses, etc. So I had to find my way as best I could by going around obstacles. I took “Red” Feltman with me. He worked on the railroad at Portola, California before the war, and then returned there afterward. He was a heavy drinker and gambler and he had me taking care of his bankroll (about $3,000) so he would get home with something, but he kept drawing from his bank until he got home broke anyway. We got there finally and the heavy artillery was firing across the river into Germany at the same time the Germans were making a push south of us trying to hook up with the “Bulge” push in the north. All of our push would be cut off, so a great retreat was ordered. We took all our company things back to Nancy again and set up shop in the same place as before. Then we took every available cargo truck and began moving back other companies caught too far into enemy attack area. It was snowing on the mountain roads and visibility was very poor and we couldn't turn on our lights because of enemy aircraft strafing the roads. I doubt if they were nutty enough to fly in a snowstorm, but the MP's sure got mad when you turned on the lights to find which way the road went.

The Germans were unsuccessful in all their efforts. Their sources for fuel for their equipment were blocked and they just ran out of gas so to speak, food and all. The war with Germany was over.

This next move we went to Stockstadt, Germany, but did only minor maintenance for moving vehicles there. It is near Frankfurt. We soon moved to Augsburg, which is north of Munich and east of Stuttgart. From here I got to go down to Munich and to the Alps and see the great ski areas. It was summer, but with binoculars you could see the lifts going very high into the mountains and a big ski jump right downtown with a large semicircular place for seating hundreds of spectators (Garnish-Partigon or something like that). Since I am a member of the church now, I hear of the church holding area conferences there and our daughter, Diane, and Jack were able to go also while stationed in Germany about 1967-68.

Munich is a large city on the Danube River. I expected the “blue Danube” to be something different, but down on the flatland the rivers are all just canals full of boats and barges and locks to change levels as they go down to the sea. It was fun to visit around the area, though, and we got down to the Brenner Pass into Italy once, but of course, weren't allowed any further. I went to Strassburg, France, on the border, and to Struttgart, Germany and to Heidelberg. Heidelberg is a famous university town with students from all over the world and you could see when visiting that not any of that part of town was bombed, only the railroads and roads, to slow down or stop transportation. Struttgart is the home of the Mercedes Benz car factory, which interested me a lot.

Some of the higher ranking Army officers got the new Mercedes and one Colonel brought his to my tuneup shop because it didn't have any power. My reputation really increased when I made it really go. The factory had installed different gaskets under the carburetor with different size holes, so you could only drive so fast during break-in and they would remove them one by one according to the miles driven, but I took them all out at once.

My friend, Frank Verbraeken, from Portland, Oregon, had an uncle and cousins in Antwerp, Belgium, and was able to get a pass and transportation to go visit them. He didn't want to go alone and the Army decided he shouldn't anyway, so I got to go with him (actually I drove a Dodge command car). We drove most all the way in one day. Gives you an idea how small those countries are. Brussels (the Glass City) is beautiful. The buildings downtown are mostly glass. They make glass of all kinds there and much fancy things. We found Frank's uncle (a Catholic priest) at a large school where the students and teachers all lived. He invited us to come back the next day for dinner (he was 75). A cousin of Frank's was there, too. The dinner was outstanding with wine, cigars, and all the trimmings you wouldn't expect to find in wartime countries. All these towns had streetcars and bicycles, not many cars. We had an interesting and enjoyable trip. They speak Flemish there, but many know English. It is only across the water 50 miles or so to England.

Our next move was to Kassel, Germany, even north of Frankfurt. Here we set up a large shop and worked over the trucks from a motor pool area that had 15,000 disabled trucks. Our shop turned out 20 completed trucks each day. I ran a shop where I had 16 mechanics with 32 German helpers and we worked on 16 vehicles at a time. It kept me busy with all their problems, and 48 people to keep track of. It began to look (after the war was over for 6 months in Germany) like we were going to have to fix all those trucks before we could go home. Morale was very low and some just about quit working. Finally, we were loaded into “40 ET8” boxcars on the railroad. 40 ET8 means 40 men or 8 horses. I don't remember how many we had, but it was a mess. They would stop the train so we could go to the car with the kitchen to get food.

We traveled across Germany and France to the port town of LeHavre and caught a small ship to England and stayed a few days at Southampton. We couldn't get any leave here because we were on the move back to the States and they didn't want to “lose” any of us. Finally, we boarded the luxury liner “Queen Elizabeth,” one of the largest ships ever built. It carried 5,000 passengers. So they put 15,000 GI's aboard and gave each an 8-hour chance at the bed. I found a spot under a stairway and didn't use a bed. The ship became a giant gambling hall and many lost all they had in the five days it took to get to New York. My friend, Red Feltman, was one of them.

When we got back to the States, many of us had dreamed of a good dinner and drinking gallons of real milk, but when we tried it, we only got sick. Our bodies had to adjust again to such good food. They split us up here and some of those guys I've never seen again.

The ones going to California were loaded into a C47 airplane with all our belongings and started out to Los Angeles. That was the vibrating-est ride I ever had. The thing felt like it would shake to pieces. We were supposed to go to Fort Worth and gas up, but we got into a storm you wouldn't believe, thunder, lightening, rain, the works. I told someone just put me on the ground and I'll find my way back to California. I don't want to blow it now, after surviving 3 years overseas. The plane took too much fuel and we had to stop at Memphis, Tennessee. We were past the storm by now and no one would believe we came from New York 'cause everything was grounded that direction. We went on and one of our motors went out, so we got a different plane at Fort Worth, Texas and finally, after 23 hours, got to Los Angeles, where I was discharged. They offered to work on my teeth if I would wait until the next day, but I told them I was through waiting, goodbye! But I still had to wait at the bus station. The line was really long and it finally got about time at midnight - daylight savings time ended and it was only 11 p.m., another hour to wait. It was really good to get home to Livingston, California and start trying to be a civilian again after nearly 5 years. I couldn't believe how much prices had gone up!

1 comment:

  1. Thats awesome Mom Great job. "Our colonel's name was Colonel Hopping and he was hopping mad for sure that time." reminds me of Peter.