RSS Feed

Tag Archives: Veterans Day

Howitzers and Can Openers

After Daddy died on December 6, 2009, I wrote this story about his first encounter with enemy fire in World War II. Our son Scott was the one who finally got Samuel Moore Collins to tell us a little about his experiences during this war.

“Tell me again, Granddaddy. I want to hear about how those German guns missed you! Tell me just one more time.”

Sam’s grandson smiled encouragingly. Sam knew the ten-year-old Scott wouldn’t give up until the story was told once again. The boy was a persistent rascal!

The two sat on the bank of Page’s Lake in Spartanburg, South Carolina. After Sam cast his line, he carefully sat down in a lawn chair and held his cane pole. Scott would expectantly stand closer to the water for a while and then suddenly plop down beside his granddaddy. There was no pattern to their fishing ritual; it was all about lazy enjoyment.

The fish weren’t biting, but the two weren’t ready to leave yet. They both had pulled in a few carp but threw the scavengers back. It was a fine, spring Saturday, and they didn’t have an agenda.

Sam stopped to buy a can of worms at A & B Aquarium on their way to the lake. The can was full of red wigglers, Scott relished the challenge of trying to pull just one worm out from the wiggling mass. Then he struggled to bait the hook; the worm always lost.

“I remember you got sea sick crossing the English Channel. You said all the men got sick because the waves were high and kept crashing into your boat.”

Scott’s blue eyes looked straight into his granddaddy’s blue eyes. The young boy searched for the adventure story, and the older man blinked at the horrific memories.

“What was that town’s name in France where you landed?” Scott questioned. “It’s been a long time since you told me the story, and I reckon I forgot.”

“The town was Rouen, Scott. We landed there on December 1, 1944. Our ship, full of men, vehicles, and equipment, crossed the English Channel, and we disembarked on December 2. We bivouaced…”

“Granddaddy! I don’t remember what bivouac means!”

The seventy-five year old patiently replied, “It’s like the camping you do with your Scout troop. You plan to stay only a night or two, so you don’t have much equipment. You say camping, soldiers say bivouac.”

“That’s right; we can’t carry much in those backpacks,” Scott nodded.

Scott’s grandfather smiled at the equipment his grandson packed. Sam had helped Scott pack for many of his Scout camping trips. In 1944, Sam’s pack was certainly not crowded with packages of beef jerky, hot dogs, ramen noodles, marshmallows, and peanuts.

Sam pictured many of  his meals during World War II. The army C-rations were packed in twelve-ounce cans; the meat and vegetable hash was the best. The potatoes and carrots were recognizable in those cans, but the soldiers didn’t want an ID on the meat. Beef jerky and peanuts were never included in their C-rations.

 

As Scott walked over to cast his line, Sam began reminiscing again.

“We set up our general headquarters in a small building next to the main house on a large farm. The smell of the former inhabitants, cows and horses, permeated the space, but we were grateful to be out of the cold.”

“Your radio needed to be out of the weather, didn’t it, Granddaddy?’

“Yep, the small box that held my switchboard needed to be protected. I sent and received messages during my shift. As radio operator, I transmitted to the battery  and division headquarters. Those messages kept us connected with one another at all times; we communicated through telephones and switchboards.”

Sam raised his voice a smidgen for emphasis.

“You know, Scott, in wartime, knowing where your friends are is just as important as knowing where your enemy is.”

Scott’s granddaddy never missed an opportunity to share life lessons with him.

“Sometime earlier, the farm had been attacked; the fields and buildings were badly damaged. My unit was called the 334th Field Artillery Battalion. Our mission was to support the 345th Infantry. As we unloaded the trucks, we could hear the light and heavy artillery in the east. Do you remember the difference between light and heavy artillery, son?”

The boy grinned and turned to his granddaddy.

“Yes, sir! Every time I visit the Citadel with you, you show me the howitzers at the end of the parade field. Those howitzers are light artillery, and you had bigger cannons in the war. Heavy artillery cannons could bust up and level a building. They were awesome!”

German planes welcome here

 

“That’s right, Scott. There were hills around that farm. All night long the booming of the cannons pounded our ears from those hills. Their howitzers and our howitzers were in a relentless drumming contest. Sometimes they sounded like thuds and sometimes like whams, I could recognize the sounds of our American cannons. Our howitzers sounded stronger to me.”

Leaning forward, Sam flexed his hands over and over, as he remembered that day.

“Guess it was sorta hard to sleep that night, right Granddaddy?” interrupted the younger fisherman.

“It was almost impossible,” murmured his grandfather.

Sam laid his fishing pole down and opened the cooler beside his chair. It was too early for their picnic lunch, but it wasn’t too early for a pack of Nabs and a Coke. The Coke bottle was cold to his touch. He agreed with the slogan, “There is nothing like a coke.” Sam believed in the Coca-Cola product so much that he had purchased 100 shares of stock in that Atlanta-based company.

He reached for his tackle box to get out his bottle opener. Just the other day he had found three of his P-38 C-ration can openers. Sam was going to give one to Scott to take on his Scout trips. He opened the bottle and took a long swig.

“Scott, put down your fishing pole, and let’s take a break.  Before I continue my story, I want to show you the army’s best invention.”

In seconds, the pole was lying on the ground. Scott reached for his Coke and crackers. Sam handed him one of the can openers.

“Is this a new opener, Granddaddy? I haven’t seen this before.”

P-38 Can Opener

“New to you, but old to me,” responded Sam. “I carried these during the war. Every soldier had at least one; some carried extras on their dog tags. It is a P-38 C-ration can opener. It won’t rust, break, and never needs sharpening. Besides being a can opener, it could be a knife or screwdriver. Sometimes I used it to clean my boots or fingernails.”

“That’s a strange name for a can opener,” remarked Scott.

P-38 Military Can Opener - US Shelby

“Well, I heard two stories about its name. One was that it got its name because it took thirty-eight punctures to open a C-ration can. Sometimes I thought one of the puncture-counters didn’t pass third grade math. It took a few more punctures than thirty-eight when those cans were frozen.

When we were in the Ardennes Forest, where we fought the Battle of the Bulge, everything was frozen, even us.  My feet got frostbitten; I couldn’t feel them when I walked. It was days before they started tingling with blood again. And that’s why I don’t like snow to this day!” Sam adamantly said.

Destroyed M4 Sherman tanks at the Belgium-Luxembourg border during the Battle of the  Bulge. Source: German Federal Archive

“Granddaddy, I love sledding and snowball fights, but frostbite probably wasn’t fun at all.”

They both shook their heads at the same time.

“I also heard the can opener was named after our P-38 fighter planes. Besides being a good cold-weather plane, it was the fastest fighter plane in the American arsenal.

Whichever story is true, these can openers are a symbol of my life during the war. Take this one on your Scout trips from now on; it will come in handy.”

Grabbing the gift of war, the boy answered,“Thanks, Granddaddy. I’ll put it to good use.”

“Now, let me finish my story. Then we can get some more fishing in before lunch.

It was our first night in France, and I had been on duty taking and sending calls since midnight. My switchboard was set up about ten feet inside the building. It was early morning around daylight, and I was ready for breakfast and a break.

Suddenly bombing started. I was in the Coast Artillery at the Citadel; I had trained on the large artillery and recognized their sounds. The Jerries had zeroed in on us right at breakfast time. Many soldiers were standing in line with their mess kits to get breakfast from the mess truck.”

The veteran stopped and stepped back from his vivid memories for a moment.

“In fact, Scott, your camping mess kit is almost exactly like the one I carried during the war.”

Looking across the lake at the horizon, Sam restlessly leaned forward in his chair. He could still hear the shrieks of the bombs and the screams of his friends. He swallowed hard.

“My training kicked in; I hit the floor! Before I covered my head, I saw dirt flying up in the air and men running for cover.  Men fell to the ground dead, where minutes earlier they were standing, drinking coffee, and talking. Several soldiers piled in around me, and others ran under trucks and toward the cellar for protection. The enemy had us! We were zeroed in the sights of their artillery at chowtime with no cover.

In minutes, the barrage was over. Our howitzers began firing back; the firing wasn’t one-sided any more.

We all ran to help our buddies. A shell had fallen on a truck cab; it instantly killed the men inside. Medics grabbed stretchers and carried the wounded from the breakfast line to a makeshift clinic. Fires were put out. Order was restored to our camp, but lives had been lost. That was my first encounter with enemy fire.”

The memories brought Sam’s words to a standstill.

Scott reached over, grabbed his granddaddy’s hand, and squeezed it.

“I sure am glad you weren’t in that breakfast line, Granddaddy.”

With a broad smile, Sam turned to his grandson, “Me, too, son, me too!”

 

Veterans Day, 2019, is tomorrow. I am grateful for all the US veterans who have fought and served our country: Wallace C. Collins, Sam Collins, Wallace Collins, Bob Collins, John Ingle, Tom Ingle, Jim Ingle, Scott Ingle, and Michelle Albanese. Thank you for your courage during peace and war.

As G. K. Chesterton said, “Courage is almost a contradiction in terms. It means a strong desire to live, taking the form of a readiness.”

 

 

 

 

“Dulce Et Decorum Est”

Image result for italy world war 1

Germany invaded neutral Belgium on August 4, 1914, as part of a planned attack on France. By nightfall, Britain had joined the war.

The war was not expected to last long. Instead of weeks, the continent was plunged into unknown hardship and misery of World War I for more than four years.

Roughly 10 million soldiers lost their lives in World War I, along with seven million civilians. The horror of the war and its aftermath altered the world for decades, and poets responded to the brutalities and losses in new ways.

Just months before his death in 1918, English poet Wilfred Owen famously wrote, “This book is not about heroes. English Poetry is not yet fit to speak of them. Nor is it about deeds, or lands, nor anything about glory, honour, might, majesty, dominion, or power, except War. Above all I am not concerned with Poetry. My subject is War, and the pity of War.”

Image result

At age 25, Wilfred Owen was killed in battle, fighting for his country in France on November 4. His parents received word of his death on Armistice Day, November 11, 1918. With his words, he paints the nightmares he encountered.

Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Notes:
Latin phrase is from the Roman poet Horace: “It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.”

Image result for wwi color photos

 

The silence screams, as this video declares Armistice Day in 1920 with the burial of Britain’s Unknown Soldier.

 

We must never forget the sacrifices of those who have fought for our country.

“The Class That Never Was”

My dad, Samuel Moore Collins, died seven years ago. This article was published in South Carolina’s magazine, “The Sandlapper,” before he died. What fun it was to interview him and his friends!

As we celebrate Veterans Day this week, I decided to share it again. It was an honor for these men in the Class of ’44 to fight for their nation.

Gentlemen, once again, I thank your for your service.

 

The 1940 plebes prematurely were carried off by a small diversion known as “World War II.” At mess one day in 1943, The Citadel Class of ’44 were ordered to stand up. They heard the words: “Gentlemen, you are shipping out.”

 

                                                                                The Class That Never Was

In 1940, World War II enveloped Europe. Belgium, Norway and France surrendered to the German Army. Italy, siding with Germany, declared war on Britain and France in June. Hitler’s parade into Paris was broadcast in American theaters on Fox Movie-tone News. Air battles and daylight raids between the Luftwafte and the Royal Air Force over Britain’s skies began in August. Men, women and children were dying.

That same year in America, Big Band sounds filled the air waves and dance floors. Crooner Bing Crosby and comedian Bob Hope made their first movie together. Everyone flocked to laugh at My Favorite Wife and The Philadelphia Story. (Our Office of War declared movies essential for morale and propaganda.) But in May, the country listened to President Franklin D. Roosevelt give a “Fireside Chat” on National Defense. He looked backward and forward at the situation in Europe and its future
effect on America.

World War II was winding closer to home shores.

On September 2, 1940, 565 high school graduates reported to The Citadel in Charleston for their freshmen year of college. They came from across the United States. Each entered the same wrought iron gate. Young men arrived from California, Indiana, Pennsylvania . . . but most were South Carolinians. Registration began at 9 a.m. in the armory with forms to fill out and fees to pay. Freshman expenses were $531.50 for first-year South Carolina cadets, $671.50 for out-of-state cadets. Gen. Charles Pelot Summerall, Citadel president, welcomed the class that night.

Among “the class that never was”—the anticipated Class of 1944—not one at the time could have imagined there would be no cadets in what would have been their graduating class.

That first week was packed with new experiences. Padgett-Thomas Barracks was their new home. Rooms were no larger than oversized closets of today. Each cadet had a spring cot. They kept their mattresses in a press and folded up the cots for daily inspection. The barracks were fully screened, but the screens didn’t keep out the mosquitoes and “no see-ums.” “Air-conditioning” was free. (No charges are listed for it among freshman expenses.) (There was a sink with cold and hot water in each room.)

Reveille, the bugle wake-up call, sounded at 6:45 a.m. the first week, at 6:15 the rest of the year. There would be no turning over for a few extra minutes of shut-eye. The training cadre was meticulous in introducing the new class to all facets of cadet life, and that included early rising.

Each cadet received a copy of the Guidon. This was the information guide to help a new cadet survive his rigorous first year. Cadets had to memorize the Guidon’s three most important questions and be ready, willing and able to recite them at any place, under any circumstance:

1) What is the definition of leather? “The fresh skin of an animal, cleaned and divested of all hair, fats and other extraneous matter; immersed in a dilute solution of tannic acid, a chemical combination ensues; the gelatinous tissue of the skin is converted into a nonputrescible substance, impervious to and insoluble in water; this, sir, is leather.”

2)What time is it? “Sir, I am deeply embarrassed and greatly humiliated that due to unforeseen circumstances over which I have no control, the inner workings and hidden mechanisms of my chronometer are in such in-accord with the great sidereal movement by which time is reckoned that I cannot with any degree of accuracy state the exact time, sir; but without fear of being very far off, I will state that it is [so many minutes, so many seconds and so many ticks after such an hour].”

3)What do freshmen rank? “The president’s cat, the commandant’s dog, the waiters in the mess hall, and all the colonels at Clemson.”

“Ten-hut!” (“Attention!”) was quickly understood. Cadets prayed to hear, “As you were, Mister,” while standing at “ten-hut.”

Plebes (first-year students) had daily opportunities to become more adept at push-ups and pull-ups. “The Citadel takes boys and makes them men,” observes Bob Adden, a Class of ’44 member from Orangeburg. Lee Chandler of Greenville, retired S.C. Supreme Court justice, says he rapidly came to see “the value of living a life of discipline and control.” The first six weeks were hard, but he decided “to not be a quitter, even though not of a military inclination.”

Freshmen quickly learned to stand at attention and parade rest, to answer all questions with the prefatory and ending address of “sir,” to clean and carry a rifle, to walk square corners and eat square meals, and to march double time everywhere. Answering immediately to names like “Mr. Dumbsquat” and “Mr. Doowilly” became second nature. They became skilled at not blinking at gnat and mosquito attacks on the parade field.

Study hall, 7-11 p.m., was enforced by upperclassmen. Days started at 6:15 a.m. and ended with taps, the bugle signal for lights out, at 11 p.m. A duty officer then checked the occupancy of each room. Some cadets called The Military College of South Carolina by another name: “The Sing Sing on the Ashley.”

The Citadel prided itself on its military training and environment. Self-discipline controlled every hour of the day. It “was very good for me,” says Edward Haynesworth of Sumter. His father and two older brothers were Citadel graduates before him. Sam Collins of Shelbyville, Kentucky, says his older brother Wallace, two years ahead of him at The Citadel, helped keep him from making too many mistakes. Arthur Cummings of Greenville chose The Citadel because he knew others who attended and admired their character.

All plebes cringed at the order, “Drive by my room.” This command was issued by an upperclassman to a fourth classman (freshman) for more obedience training. Constant inspections by upperclassmen on the plebes’ uniforms, actions and room status kept them vigilant.

“Walking a tour” was to be avoided at all costs. “Tours” were walked on a weekend when a cadet was supposed to be at liberty. The one-hour walk carrying a rifle at shoulder arms around the quadrangle was monitored, and this “opportunity for marching” was meted out regularly. “You finally get used
to the regulations,” Sam Piper of Greenville says.

Plebes learned to discipline their actions, thoughts and words. Their camaraderie grew daily. They respected one another for persevering. “The camaraderie fed on itself,” Chandler recalls.

The Citadel ring was the ultimate prize. Like all those before and since, the fourth classmen of 1940 craved their graduation rings. But The Citadel’s training was and is to prepare soldiers to serve their country.

“It is believed that considerably more than half our living graduates, and a like proportion of our ex-cadets, are now in the service of the United States, with more entering every day. Each of these men symbolizes The Citadel’s essential teaching — service and sacrifice.”
– Gen. Summerall

On September 16, 1940, President Roosevelt signed the Selective Service Act—the first peacetime conscription bill. All men 18 and older were eligible for the draft. Now, the Class of ’44 had greater concerns than walking a tour. Training intensified.

Some fourth classmen enlisted by the middle of their first year. Sherrill Poulnot of Charleston waited until 1942 to join the Navy. (“Three meals a day and a dry place to sleep was not so bad,” he reflects.) Only 428 of the entering 1940 class returned for their sophomore year. Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, prompted still more war volunteers from the class.

The Army Specialized Training Program was launched in December 1942; only a few specialized students would be allowed to stay in school. Changes were made in The Citadel’s calendar, faculty were informed of their new military status, and training in the rules and practices of war for Uncle Sam accelerated by the day.

Daily, recent Citadel men were reported as dead, missing in action or prisoners of war. In his foreword to the December edition of the Alumni News, Gen. Summerall wrote, “It is believed that considerably more than half our living graduates, and a like proportion of our ex-cadets, are now in the service of the United States, with more entering every day. Each of these men symbolizes The Citadel’s essential teaching—service and sacrifice.”

“The Enlisted Reserve Corps [ERC] told us we would get to graduate, just not when,” says class member Bob Adden.

At the end of their junior year, the Class of ’43 recommended to Summerall that the Class of ’44 receive their class rings early. The general approved. What was so important about The Citadel ring? “Everything!” says Sam Collins, the Kentucky classmate. “I wear the ring.”

On May 2, 1943, the Class of ’44 marched to the Charleston station and boarded a train. They traveled to Ft. Jackson in Columbia to be inducted into the armed services. After processing, the train returned them to The Citadel. The United States had called the Class of ’44 to their duty—a duty for which The Citadel had trained them.

The cadets finished their junior year and received a two-week furlough, then were ordered to 13 weeks of basic training. Officers Candidate Schools were the next stop. Then they were commissioned.

For many, active duty ended in January 1946. Thirty-four soldiers from the Class of ’44 gave their lives to protect their country. Six were prisoners of war; four were imprisoned at the same time at a camp in Schubin, Poland. Countless received Purple Hearts, Silver Stars and Bronze Stars. They joined other Citadel men as guardians of freedom.

Some continued active service after the war was over. Some finished their education at other colleges and universities. Others returned to The Citadel to complete their senior year for graduation as veteran students; 152 from the Class of ’44 received diplomas from The Citadel in 1946 and 1947.

On Page 9 of the 1940 Guidon are Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s words: “The destiny of any nation depends on what its young men under twenty-five are thinking.” The “Class of ’44” were men of character, dependability and self-reliance.

In 1954, the class gathered for their first reunion at The Citadel, and they have met every five years since then. In 1994, they finally received their 1944 yearbooks. Many class members wrote synopses of their memories of The Citadel and the war years. The annual includes pictures from earlier annuals and statistics about the class.

In May 2008, 17 members of the Class of ’44 attended the 2008 Citadel graduation exercises. The Class of ’44 was recognized with speeches and given a standing ovation. Lee Chandler spoke for the Class: “The ‘Class That Never Was’ has become the class that always will be.”

The class celebrated its 65th reunion at The Citadel’s homecoming November 7, 2009.

Author’s Note:

As the daughter of Sam Collins, I grew up attending many Citadel parades on homecoming reunion weekends. I watched the “Class of ’44” gather to stand in review. The corps marched past; cadets and graduates held their backs straight and tall. I remember the excitement of those alumni at seeing one another again, shaking hands and pounding backs. They huddled in tight groups, not wanting to miss one another’s words. Their grins of greeting were contagious.

After interviewing many of them for this article, I understand more about their closeness. They were all called to active duty at the same time and were trained by example. Retired Rev. Edward Haynesworth observed that Gen. Summerall “didn’t ask them to do anything that he didn’t do.”

All the cadets were required to attend chapel services on Sunday; the general attended, also. The general often wore a cape, and his exemplary military bearing made an impression. The corps would stand in front of his home to sing “Happy Birthday” to him before breakfast. Dressed in his uniform with all his medals, he greeted the cadets with, “Gentlemen, this is indeed a surprise!” Gen. Summerall’s example followed them overseas.

Many Citadel soldiers served in the same divisions during the war. Their training at The Citadel made them strong, and it didn’t break them.

I and my brothers, Critt Collins, Citadel Class of 1973, and Lee Collins, had the privilege of being reared by a Citadel Man, so we closely observed his character. He taught us the importance of always doing the right thing.

—Sheila Collins Ingle