The World War II Recollections of Paul W. Fleming
Just like an awful lot of other fellows, I joined the Army National Guard in 1937. We met once a week and got two dollars a drill, which was pretty good money at the time. There were a couple hundred of us there in St. Cloud -- my high school friends, mainly. It was what everybody did.
We were infantry, and in the summertime we would go up to Camp Ripley and spend two weeks doing active-duty training. It was kind of fun up there, except out on bivouac, where we had to sleep in pup tents -- the mosquitoes drove us crazy. Mostly we spent a lot of time marching around with our packs on our backs, and practiced shooting our rifles, and that sort of thing.
I had no idea, none whatsoever, that I'd ever be in a war, and even when the war broke out in Europe, we still didn't think we'd get involved in it. At the time, about '39 or '40, you'd see headlines in the paper that would say things like "Churchill: 'Send Us Arms, We Don't Need Your Men.'" In fact, I kept a headline from the St. Cloud Times that said that very thing. And that was the propaganda going on then, but not everybody believed it.
Even if I'd seen the war coming, I probably would have stayed in the Guard, because it wouldn't have made any difference anyhow. That's the argument they always used to get you to sign up for the Guard again: if you have to be inducted into the army, you're going to be inducted anyhow, whether you're in the Guard or not -- but you'll probably have a better time of it in the Guard. Yes, we were going to get drafted anyhow.
In about 1940, they suddenly converted the outfit from infantry to coast artillery. Our knowledge of guns and so forth was still a good thing and we still needed to use that, but now we had these big guns and searchlights to deal with. Battery A, St. Cloud, was a searchlight battery. They had a full-time colonel instructing our officers and the non-coms and the rest of us, all of us, in coast artillery, because we were just infantry guys -- we didn't know anything about coast artillery. It was better than full-time infantry, though, because it was more specialized, and you didn't have to go on these long bivouacs and do all that double-time marching with a pack on your back and a rifle on you, and running around with a bayonet on your gun and stabbing it into a gunny sack full of straw and screaming and that sort of thing. Coast artillery was more interesting all the way around, a lot better.
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All of the sudden the order came down, freezing all the guys in the Guard. We weren't full-time army yet, but we couldn't get out of the Guard. They were going to call us up and they told us so, but the call-up dragged on for a while; we thought we'd be called up within weeks, but it turned out to be months. Finally in early '41 we got called up, inducted into active duty, and then we stayed in St. Cloud for about a week, just sort of packing up and getting the thing going. We were called up for one year, and we all thought, Well, I can take a year of this, you know. We were all young guys, and we thought it'd be a lark. Most of us were kind of looking forward to it.
Then, one terribly cold February morning in 1941, we marched down to the train station, and St. Cloud, Minnesota, suddenly had about three hundred fewer young fellows in it than it had before. We were all in our winter uniforms, but there wasn't any big parade or anything like that. I was assigned to the regimental band, but I'm not sure whether we even played on the march out to the train station or not. I don't think we did -- it was so doggone cold, way below zero.
Anyhow, we marched down to the train station, and got on a train, and headed across the country down to Riverside, California -- to a place called Camp Haan, almost across the street from March Field. It was a tent city, just a mudhole, when we got there. I think it rains a lot out there that time of year, and anyhow, there was just mud all over everything, all the time. We had tents with wooden floors, and each of us had a cot and a sleeping bag -- which we had to buy ourselves.
After it stopped raining we got along pretty well there. In the summer of '41 they sent us out on bivouac for a couple of weeks to the Mojave Desert, near Marshall, and we practiced firing the guns and using the searchlights -- pretty much the same kind of stuff we'd been doing up in Minnesota. Between reveille and retreat we would practice marching and attend lots of lectures: army regulations and health care and avoidance of venereal disease and gas warfare and identification of enemy planes and proper use of army equipment, things like that. I was thinking, Oh, well, in another six months I'll be out of here. We all believed we'd be out of there in a year. So we just kind of paid lip service to all that army stuff, which we weren't the least bit interested in. In the summer of '41, before the war broke out, the guys all had calendars and they were x-ing off the days until they'd get out, out of the service. That's what we all thought, anyway. That was very naive of us!
I was assigned to the regimental band because they needed a flute and piccolo player, and they just stuck me in there because that's where I was needed. We played two times every day: reveille in the morning, early, and then retreat at five o'clock in the afternoon. While the other guys were fooling around with these searchlights and cannon, we were practicing music. Occasionally, they'd send the band up to Los Angeles to play at football games or parades or concerts. That was fun. We had time off when we could go to movies and things like that. It was a shame that once I left the artillery for the engineering school in May, that was the end of my band career in the army. I never touched a horn again till I got out. I didn't have a flute with me; many times I wished I had but I didn't.
Back around Camp Haan, for social life they had a little canteen for the enlisted men where we drank beer and played cards. We played a lot of poker. There was an occasional dance for soldiers put on by some group in Riverside, but it was always about a hundred fellows to one girl, and so pretty soon we lost interest in that. In fact, the guys would bring a bottle along and they'd say, "Come on, Fleming, let's have a snort," and we'd go into the latrine and have a couple of snorts, and come back, and survey the situation and decide it was hopeless, and then go to a movie or something.
Then, in the spring of 1941, another one of the sergeants, McNeal, and I bought a great big old car in Riverside. Great big '29 Dodge sedan. It had two jump seats in the middle between the front and back seat, and it held ten people. It went about five miles to a gallon of gas! That made us mobile, and we could go into Riverside whenever we wanted to, and we started taking these trips. We took a weekend trip to Las Vegas, and we went down to Mexico for a weekend, things like that. You can't imagine Las Vegas back in 1941 -- it was just a dirty little hole of less than five thousand people. The main industries were prostitution and slot machines. And we went swimming at Lake Mead, that thing they dammed up. I can remember so well those little dust devils whirling around -- we'd duck down in the water to get away from them. It was great to be able to get out of camp. This was still before the war started and things were pretty loose. It wasn't bad at all. In fact, we had a lot of fun, to tell the truth, especially on these trips.
Well, the car was sitting there, in early November of '41, when they called the whole regiment out on maneuvers, up to northern California. The Sunday that the war broke out I was a messenger at the regimental headquarters, running messages in Oakland. Nobody was expecting anything. Then that Sunday morning, about ten or eleven o'clock, I got the news off the teletype, and for about ten minutes maybe I was the only one in the Bay Area who knew about Pearl Harbor! I had to convey it around, and everyone was all excited and everything. I wasn't scared -- I was mad because now I knew I couldn't get out of the army anymore. I was stuck, and that's how most of the guys felt. Meanwhile my car sat down there in Riverside, and I wrote to a high-school classmate and asked her to pick it up, and see if she couldn't peddle it, and she did. I think I got thirty-five bucks for it.
Well, we immediately set up artillery batteries and searchlights all up and down the bay there, on the Oakland side. It was a brand-new ball game. Before the war started, soldiers were just dirt around California -- people were used to seeing soldiers around and they didn't have much time for them, but now all of a sudden the war broke out and, geez, you'd step out on the street and put out your thumb, and the next car would come screaming to a halt. "Would you like to come to our house for dinner?" and things like that. We'd go into a bar, and everybody wanted to buy us drinks! Oh, at that time it was great, for a short time there, but that wore off pretty quick.
It was real funny because every sergeant was issued a .45 and some live ammo. Hell, I'd never fired a .45 and didn't intend to, if I could help it. Anyhow, we all had pistols, and one night one of the guys, who was a pretty heavy drinker named Ralph Brown, went into San Francisco with me. We went into a bar with the .45s strapped on, and we were strutting around -- real drugstore cowboys, you might say. Then some drunk came up to us and said, "Huh. You think you're a pretty big shot now with that gun, don't you. I'll bet you don't even know how to fire it." But Brownie was about half drunk and he whipped out his .45 and said, "Dance, you son of a bitch," and he started firing at the guy's feet -- bang! bang! The bartender just turned white, and when he reached for the phone, I grabbed Brownie and said, "Let's get the hell out of here!" and so we scurried out the back way. I didn't want to go out with that guy anymore!
I lost track of Brownie during the war. After a while they were getting all these draftees who had master's degrees in music, and were hotshot orchestra or band players, and so they started weeding out the guys like Brown, who were just average high-school musicians, you might say. He got kicked out and put into the infantry, and I don't know what happened to him after that. They did this with a whole bunch of guys; in fact, that's what happened to DesMaires, my neighbor down there in Mesa. He was a tuba player and they got rid of him the same way, and put him in the infantry. The director couldn't do anything about it because people were demanding USO shows with professional-type players, and so he just bounced about half the band out to make room for these hotshots.
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I was only up there in the Bay Area for a couple of months and then I was sent to Officer Candidate School. A lot of the guys had high army intelligence test scores, and with this new ball game, they started wooing all the guys like myself for OCS. At first they sent me to engineers' school at Fort Belvoir, a great big base in Virginia, right near Washington, D.C. Then I wasn't a sergeant any longer, I was an officer candidate.
The day after I got there we were lined up single file and told to read carefully the instructions on the bulletin board as we shuffled by. They said that we were to report to the company commander: stop three feet in front of his desk, then salute, stand at attention, and say, "Officer Candidate Fleming reports to the company commander for duty as ordered." If you didn't say it perfectly, he kicked you out and told you to get to the end of the line and get it right. I did it all correctly except I said "Battery Commander Fleming," since I had been in the coast artillery. I was kicked back to the end of the line, but I got it right the second time.
Pretty soon I ran into an old friend from the artillery regiment I had been in, Connie Prem, who was a class ahead of me at the school, and he clued me in as to what was going on. This school was well run in a very rigid, tough manner at that time -- the military discipline was really strict. The officers in charge of the platoons hazed us pretty hard there. One of the things I'll never forget is how they lined us up, with the guys standing there at attention. We were all wearing those GI belts made of webbing, and they had a clasp that you could open up to make them longer or shorter. Well, if you had more than about an inch of extra webbing showing, they would stick their face in front of you and say, "Are you a girl, mister?" And you'd say, "No, sir!" "Then why do you wear your belt like a girl?" And they would take a knife and snip off all the extra, and leave just about an inch after it had gone through the clasp. So there you were with your gut sucked way in tight, and after that you couldn't let your gut out even if you wanted to.
I was there for about a month, and then to my great surprise they called me in and told me I was to be transferred to the aviation cadet school at Belleville, Illinois, for communications training. I had put in for that also but I didn't think anything would ever come of it -- but it did. And I was rather pleased with that, because it would give me a chance to learn something about electronics, something useful, instead of all this old army stuff that's only useful on the battlefield, which I had very little real interest in. When I got there, to the cadet school, there was a lot of hazing, but not as bad as at Fort Belvoir.
I spent four months there, as a cadet in communications electronics. At the time the air force was getting priority over everything else, and that's why I was jerked out of the engineering deal and was put in communications. I didn't know it at the time but I found that out later that there were many different classes and schools in the air force; they had schools for bombardiers, navigators, pilots, and engineers -- and this school for communications -- and you ended up commissioned after you graduated. They were good schools, too: the one in Fort Belleville was a darned good school, very well run. We learned all about wiring and telephones and radios and so on. We had to learn Morse code and airplane communication procedure. Yes, I felt quite competent when I left there to handle all those things, and it was quite a thrill when, on the 3rd of October, 1942, after completing the school at Belleville, I was commissioned as a second lieutenant.
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I was feeling patriotic at that time so I put in for overseas right away. A lot of the guys were doing that -- they were gung-ho, and I was too. Of course, I had no idea what would happen to me overseas. At Belleville we had a colonel from World War I who was in charge of our unit when we were cadets, and he would say things like, "You guys are gonna have to run through minefields, and string barbed wire, and string telephone lines." He was always talking like that. Well, that was crazy because nothing like that happened in World War II, that was World War I. But I didn't know that then! When I graduated from there I was thinking that the war was going to last forever, but at least now I was commissioned.
I was a second lieutenant, a "repl.-depl." type. Those are officers who are just out of school and don't belong to any unit at the present time; they're at replacement depots waiting to go, to be assigned somewhere. They sent me down to the port of embarkation at New Orleans, me and a lot of other guys, and nothing happened there for a couple of weeks. Then we got the orders to load up and board ship, and so we did; we'd walk up that long plank leading up to the boat, up to one of these converted destroyers they called "tin cans."
We were carrying our duffel bags and little suitcases, all kinds of stuff. You traveled awfully light because you knew that you were always gonna have to pack it on your back, whatever you had, and you weren't anxious to carry anything extra. They would call off your name, "Fleming!" and then you answered, "Paul W.! Second Lieutenant!" and then you'd march up the gangway. One of the guys, whose name was Sype, had gotten pretty drunk the night before, and had to pack everything in a hurry. All of his personal belongings were in this little suitcase. They called his name -- "Sype! Eugene R.!" He started wobbling up the old gangplank, still half hung over, and then he dropped this suitcase, and it burst open -- socks and underwear went spilling down into the water. He didn't know what to do, so he said, "Ah, to hell with it," and he kicked the rest of it over and walked up the plank there.
So we got aboard and started down the delta. The ship was an old converted destroyer that they should have junked but didn't, and they were using it for a troop ship now. A "tin can." I don't think it even had a name. It had a three-inch gun on the back, and that's all it had, because they had taken the other guns away. The decks were real crowded. We were loaded to the gills with guys who had just finished basic training and infantry -- draftees, nearly all draftees. They had their rifles with them, and packs on their backs. Every officer had a .45 and live ammunition. All army people. They didn't tell us where we were going, but there were rumors, and we all thought we were going to North Africa, because that's where the action was then. This was the winter of '42, about November or December, and they were fighting in North Africa, and at that particular time the United States wasn't really doing too well.
I had no idea the delta was so long -- it took us at least four or five days to get out to sea from New Orleans. And meanwhile the rumor spread that this "tin can" we were on was in very bad shape and if it were hit by a torpedo it would split in two and sink in ninety seconds. Well, of course that sounded preposterous, but that was the rumor that was going around, and so we were going slow, I suppose, and feeling our way along. Every day when we were still in the delta, a couple of these guys would all of a sudden rip off their packs and throw their rifles down on the deck and say to hell with the war, and jump overboard. I'd see these guys swimming to shore, and I thought that they would shoot at them and try to kill them, but they didn't do that, they didn't pay any attention to them at all -- nobody tried to stop them or pick them up or anything else. I'd say we lost at least a dozen guys that way, going down the delta there. It was all marshy, swampy land, and I can't imagine what happened to them after they got to where they could even stand up; I think a lot of them were from the South anyhow, and they were used to that kind of country. I suppose some of them survived.
So down we went. And then when we got out of the delta and hit the open sea, it was extremely rough for a couple of hours and everybody got sick and started throwing up. The whole ship just smelled like puke from then on -- a pretty sick ship. The air was very hot and still. And on top of that there was a complete blackout at night, and all the guys knew that they weren't allowed to light up a cigarette, or anything like that. The officers had orders that, if anybody lit a match or made any kind of a light on the deck, we were to grab our guns and shoot at it, shoot at the light.
Those convoys could only go as fast as the slowest ship, and we had some pretty beat-up old vessels there, and so it was a pretty slow voyage. All along the way we were fighting running battles with submarines. We were under attack, and these motor torpedo boats were running around, circling the convoy at high speed and dropping depth charges, and some of the destroyers were firing their three-inch guns, but we never knew what was going on really. I never saw a submarine. We went along there for a couple of days, and then we landed at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, where we stayed for about a week, but they wouldn't let us off the ship. And one night we snuck out of there -- we still thought we were going to North Africa.
I think that we were supposed to go to North Africa, but they decided that it wasn't worth the risk, that we didn't have sufficient firepower with us to take on those submarines for that long voyage, so they decided to dump us off in Panama -- that's what I think. And so, first thing you know, a week or two later, we landed in Panama. We were all damn glad when we got our feet on dry land! We considered ourselves mighty lucky to have survived the voyage, because the war wasn't going very well for the United States just then.
© Michael Fleming