THE PREWAR SOLDIERS
THE CALAMITY VISITED upon the Bedford community rose from the American tradition of home militia--National Guard units formed in states or regions and then in wartime federalized intact into the United States Army. The young men from Bedford belonged to the 116th Infantry Regiment of the 29th Division. They were enlistees from Bedford, Charlottesville, Roanoke (Bob Slaughter's hometown), and other places toward the southwestern part of the state.
The regiment's origins lie in the American Revolution of the 1770s, when George Washington and Patrick Henry led the early militia. The outfit later stood with Gen. Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson as part of the Confederacy in what some still call the War Between the States. As "doughboys" in the 116th, fathers of those who would slosh ashore on Omaha Beach had fought in France with the 1917 American Expeditionary Forces (AEF).
Well before the first Japanese bomb fell on Pearl Harbor, the 116th filled its ranks with earnest local youths as well as, according to Bob Slaughter, "thugs and drunks." The original roster of Slaughter's D Company, like the memorial at Bedford, speaks of a homogeneous population--Smith, Slaughter, Lancaster, Boyd, Jones, Baker, Croft, Atkins, and the like--an Americanized Anglo-Saxon, Scotch-Irish replica of those who accompanied Henry V into France for St. Crispin's Day.
"We grew up together, went to school together, played together, worked together, and went to church together," says Bob Slaughter. "We were all Baptists; we didn't know what a Jew was. I never met a Roman Catholic until after the war started."
A notable exception to the common strain is one of the names on the Bedford monument, that of Weldon A. Rosazza, dimly remembered fifty years later in the local dialect as "an Eyetalian boy" who worked at a small manufacturing plant.
By contrast, the Normandy adventure of 1944 brought to bear almost all of the ethnic elements of America, with much of the homogeneous quality of the 116th vanishing under the influx of manpower demands. Slaughter notes that once war reached the States, attrition and authorities weeded out most of the misfits he originally encountered. Draftees from neighboring states like Pennsylvania and Maryland sewed on the circle-shaped blue-and-gray patch of the 29th Division. Thus, Frustoso Chavez, Jacob Osofsky, Francis Malinowski, John DiBeneditti, and Edward Berghoff also died wearing it on the Normandy shores.
Still, the 116th started out as a homegrown Virginia product. Slaughter traces his history with the unit. "My father was a construction company vice president in Tennessee, but during the Depression he lost his job and we moved to Virginia, where he caught on as a warehouse foreman. We had current events in school, but I didn't know or care anything about the war in Europe or the Far East. The propaganda films were very popular--For Whom the Bell Tolls, Sergeant York, A Yank in the RAF.
"One of my neighborhood buddies, Medron R. 'Nudy' Patterson, came by the house one night on his way to National Guard drill. He was all decked out in an immaculate uniform with brass insignias shining. He was a well-built lad, very impressive-looking in his olive-drab wool dress uniform. I secretly admired his military demeanor."
Slaughter also was attracted for financial reasons. "You received a whopping dollar per drill, and during the summer the outfit spent two weeks at Virginia Beach. We didn't have enough money for the family to vacation, and the Guard trained in the morning and gave you the afternoon off."
Presenting himself as a year older than he was for an interview with a Guard captain--Slaughter, only sixteen, was big for his age and eventually would reach six feet five--he learned that if his folks signed he might be accepted. "My parents had a fit. They tried to explain that I should first finish school, then go into the service."
Slaughter won that skirmish and became a member of Company D, a heavy weapons unit with .30 caliber water-cooled Browning machine guns and 81mm mortars in support of rifle companies. "Our National Guard uniforms were hand-me-downs from World War I doughboys--Smokey the Bear hats, wrap leggings, soup-bowl helmets, blue denim fatigues, and cavalry breeches that usually didn't fit. The rifles were the old Springfields." Within a few months, in February 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt directed the 29th Infantry Division to report for a year's training. Slaughter welcomed federalization. "I could send at least half my thirty dollars a month home to help with the household expenses. Besides, there was one less mouth to feed."
Born in 1921, farmboy Felix Branham grew up in Charlottesville, Virginia, a hoot and a loud holler from Thomas Jefferson's Monticello home. "I didn't care nothing about the situation in the Far East," says Branham. "But I was concerned with things in Europe because my daddy had served in Europe in World War I with the 1st Infantry Division, 'the Big Red One.' My uncles had also been in the army, and there was a lot of talk while I was growing up about the Great War. Naturally I learned to hate the Germans, whether it was Hitler or who. Before 1933 it was Kaiser Wilhelm. Everyone felt Hitler was a dog. Anything that stood for Germany I hated, anything that looked German, whether human or made by Germans, I hated.
"It was expected in Virginia that young fellows, when they became of age, would join the National Guard, which was also known as the Virginia Militia. I enlisted in 1939 and was assigned to Company K, which was also known as the Monticello Guard. It got that name when Lafayette visited Mr. Thomas Jefferson.
"When we were called up for federal service in 1941, we were sent to Fort Meade, Maryland. We traded in our riding britches, wrap leggings, campaign hats, and old World War I flat-type helmets for new clothes and equipment. For the start, though, we received six M-1 rifles to the entire company."
Roy Stephens was from Bedford. His family operated a farm. "My twin brother Ray and I were talked into joining the Guard. We was all like one big family. In A Company we had three sets of brothers."
Bob Sales hailed from Lynchburg, Virginia, and was even younger than Slaughter. "I was tired of school. I wanted to get on with my life, and somebody said I could get in the Guard if I would tell them I was eighteen. So I signed up."
During the Great Depression, the pittance paid by the National Guard drew enlistments across the country. In California, Harold Oliver Isaac Kulju, born in 1924, started on the path to Normandy in his home state's National Guard. Unlike the men of the 116th, he could not stretch his ancestry back to colonial times. "My grandparents were Finnish immigrants, and Finnish was the language spoken until I was five years old, at which time I learned English in order to go to school." Eventually, he Americanized his surname to Canyon.
Harold Canyon lived mostly on a farm, but life was hardly pastoral. "I saw my grandparents killed when a Southern Pacific passenger train hit their Model A Ford. They were on their way to church. After that, I lived alternately with an uncle, a couple of aunts, and with my mother when I was not living alone. While on my own, I had a paper route that paid fifteen dollars a month. I could get a one-pound loaf of bread for nine cents and a quart of raw milk for a nickel that would last me all day. Sleeping quarters would be an alfalfa field one night, a eucalyptus orchard another, and a tree house on the east bank of the Kings River until my aunt let me use her barn.
"My goal in life was to make the army my career. In high school I took cadets, which was combined with gym class. I signed up for the draft in Martinez, California, but at the time only twenty-one-year-olds were being drafted. I was called up, but they noticed I was only seventeen. I then joined the California State Guard, lying about my age. They were still inactive, and I went into the Civilian Conservation Corps. After three months with the CCC, the Guard was activated and I reported for duty at the fairgrounds in Napa."
Bernard McKearney, born in Camden, New Jersey, in 1917, was another national guardsman, with slightly different reasons for his enlistment. "My parents were Irish immigrants. My father was a railroad man all of his life. My mother went to the fifth grade before she was forced to quit school to raise four brothers and a sister.
"I was an altar boy until I graduated from high school. Later, in the 101st Airborne, I often served mass for Father Andy, the chaplain for the 502nd Regiment. In high school, I was a poor student who graduated in the lower fifth of my class. I was lousy in baseball and basketball but was a good boxer and a better than good football player. I eventually became the starting guard for the Screaming Eagles, the 502nd Parachute Regiment team.
"There was nothing to rebel about when I was a youngster. I loved my family, my church, and my boyhood friends. The family never had any discretionary money before, during, or after the Great Depression, but my father worked every day and we had enough. My concerns as a teenager were to be good in sports, learn to dance, and get up enough nerve to ask a girl for a date. To me, German and Japanese aggression were a world apart.
"I joined the Howitzer Company, 114th Infantry, New Jersey National Guard, when I was a senior in high school. This meant I could play basketball in the Armory, and we received one dollar a drill. When the Guard was called into active service in September 1940, many old-timers flunked their physical. I was made first sergeant of the antitank company, at twenty-three, the youngest in the regiment."
Robert Edlin was a seventeen-year-old "country boy" in 1939 when he entered the Indiana National Guard, where, like his Virginia contemporaries, he was instructed in the barest essentials of military duties. "We went to drill one night a week, receiving a dollar for each night paid quarterly. That twelve dollars made us feel we were rich. These were the days of piss-pot helmets, 1903 rifles, stovepipe mortars, and a few old-time sergeants who trained us in the World War I tradition. But what could you teach a bunch of green-ass rookies who were interested only in baseball, boxing, basketball, and girls, not necessarily in that order? We went to Fort Knox, Kentucky, for two weeks' summer training. That '03 rifle kicked like a mule, and wrap leggings were a mystery I never solved.
"In November of 1940 we were told to get our affairs in order. We were going on active duty for one year. Drastic changes took place. Many of the older, married men with children were released. The draft started and some younger fellows enlisted to be with friends.
"On January 17, 1941, a very nondescript group of civilians reported to the National Guard Armory. I was promoted to the heady rank of corporal and given command of a 60mm mortar squad. Even Gen. MacArthur had never received such an honor, two stripes and command of four men, even though I had never seen a mortar and didn't even have a weapon of any kind. I was a soldier--damn. I could hardly wait to get on that train. Look out, Hitler, here we come.
"After we were activated, we prepared for the train ride to Camp Shelby, Mississippi. Hundreds of people lined the streets of New Albany, Indiana, to see these elite units, B Company and D Company of the 152nd Infantry, 38th Division, following the high school band to the depot. Wrap leggings proudly flapping in the breeze, full field packs falling apart, dropping blankets and mess gear in the streets--little did we know it would be more than five years before some of us would return. Many still lie in countries and places we didn't even know existed."
Bill Lewis, originally from Altus, Oklahoma, was born in 1921. The family migrated to Wichita Falls, Texas, when his father, a conductor for the railroad, moved his home base to accommodate his run. "I finished high school, put in one semester at Hardin College in Wichita Falls, and joined the Texas National Guard, the 36th Infantry Division." The vagaries of military bureaucracy would eventually join Lewis's fortunes with those of Bob Slaughter and Felix Branham in the 116th Infantry Regiment.
In Connecticut, Chester B. McCoid, better known either as C.B. or Mac, lied enough to gain admission to Company B, 169th Infantry, the local National Guard unit, although he was only a sixteen-year-old high school student. "Adding a couple of years was in no way unusual at a time when size and seeming maturity were all the commander and first sergeant used when gauging a recruit's potential. My motivation came from a lifelong interest in all matters military [McCoid's father, divorced from his mother, was a regular army officer] and a growing awareness that a world war was an approaching certainty. An additional consideration was the prospect of an easy dollar per week drill money along with the pay from annual summer training or maneuvers, fifteen dollars.
"When the 43rd Division was federalized in February 1941, I was the recently promoted sergeant of the light machine gun section of our company's newly formed weapons platoon, which was without either mortars or machine guns at that juncture. I was still in high school but left without too many regrets. The academic authorities very kindly graduated me in absentia, five months later."
On New York's Long Island near the village of West Freehold, the family of Edward Jeziorski grew potatoes. "Money was always tight," says Jeziorski, who was born in 1920. "We worked with horse teams until the early 1930s, when we got our first tractor. A friend of mine, who would later become my brother-in-law, convinced me to join him in the National Guard, the 119th Quartermaster Regiment, in April 1940. The extra dollars for drills were welcome. We were federalized in September for a one-year period."
Excerpted from June 6, 1944 by Gerald Astor. Copyright © 2002 by Gerald Astor. Excerpted by permission of Dell, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.