A Wartime Diary – Part 6

Part 1 here.

Part 2 here.

Part 3 here.

Part 4 here.

Part 5 here.

ROME!!

So begins this chapter of my father’s WWII diary. We left the last part with the Allies just entering Rome after a long and bloody fight coming up the Italian boot mostly dealing with rugged mountainous terrain. As MB said, “A terrible place to fight a war.”

He gets a bit poetic here. “ROME! What a city! A modern metropolis thriving in the shadows of a bygone era. The nearest thing to cities back home that we’ve seen. Modern buildings, clean wide streets. Electric cars. Life goes on as usual with no interruption. By now (June 11) the Romans have become used to us & go about their business with no apparent curiosity about the Yanks. Beautiful girls, well dressed with bright printed dresses, very friendly.” I bet they were.

MB goes on the rattle off one of his long lists he calls “a few points of interest,” but I will spare you the details.

Here begins what I call the “Gypsy Phase” of his war experience. Understand that each of these moves required breaking down a hospital with all its tents, beds, and equipment, packing it, moving it, and setting it up again somewhere else. No easy task.

“6 June – We move to Priverno – French Air Evac.”

“14 June – We move with 422ndFrench Hosp to Aeroporto, 25 miles above Rome. Still doing Air Evac.”

“21 June – Move again! Still with French Air Evac. Viterbo.”

“12 July – We move to Sienna with 421st French Hosp. Still doing Air Evac. Activity here is increasing…behind the lines. It means only two things: Southern France or another landing up the boot. I pick France in 2-3 weeks.”

MB has been in the Army for almost three years at this point and in a combat zone for almost two years with the last year close to the front and seeing the worst of it. But now he is out of the action and it is getting to him as he states, “Afraid I am getting weary of the war. I’ve lost all ambition & initiative. Things are too dull back here – same nothingness each day. I’m even getting tired of looking at the Italians.” (The women?) “Sienna (a beautiful and historic city) is only six miles away, but I can’t work up enough interest to visit it. Maybe if I had a few air raids I would snap out of it!”

MB on right with a French officer, probably the commander of the French unit they are attached to.

Evidently, he does muster up the energy to visit Sienna. “14 July – Sienna, another Italian walled city. Old, steeped in legend. Famous for its numerous churches, the finest Cathedral & the shrine of St. Catherine of Sienna. Narrow winding streets with many balconies. Also the home of famous briar pipes.”

The French celebrate Bastille Day. “The French held a huge celebration here today to celebrate Bastille Day. Parades & talks by Army Commanders. Colorful Goume and Senegalese bands and guards. City all decorated. Gen Clark flew into our airport in a Simpson & an escort of 6 Piper Cubs!” Six Piper Cubs? They aren’t even armed. Some escort.

French tank? Uniform of the dude on the right looks French.

“18 July – This stunning Russian advance amazes me. Yet, I’m puzzled. No army no matter how strong can advance as rapidly against opposition no matter how little. The Krauts must be pulling back to some powerful defensive line. If this is not the case, I believe in miracles.” He is referring to what is happening on the eastern front with the Russians on a tear and pushing the Germans out of Russia and Poland.

“28 July – We move to Cecina.” Cecina is well up the Italian boot above Rome. “The French have pulled out of the line & we’ve been relieved. Have no assignment & no prospects. There are too many medical troops here for what’s on the line. Somebody is going to make another invasion. Us maybe? Preparations are in progress for something tremendous. When, where? The new moon is up now.” Most landings took place during a full moon.

“7 Aug – Our second-anniversary party was a huge success. Wonderful meal, fine dance. Hope this is the last.” Evidently, it is the second anniversary of them being in theater.

“15 Aug – This is what I’ve been expecting. The landing in Southern France by 7thArmy. Now to grind the Hun out of France.” He predicted this earlier in his diary and missed the date by a week. Operation Dragoon was the Allied invasion of Southern France on August 15, 1944. The invasion took place between Toulon and Cannes by a combination of American and Free French troops.

“22 Aug  – The siege of Paris has begun.” The Allies broke out of the Normandy beachhead and rolled toward Paris. “Such tremendous advances & such destruction of the German armies means the end is near. It may come at any minute & certainly, it will come suddenly.”

He shifts his focus back to Italy. “It won’t be long before the final push starts to clear Italy of the Germans. The Brazilians are here and the 92nd Div (Negro) is here.”

Umm! It gets spicy now! “L’amore in Rome!” You don’t need that translated, do you? It sounds like he had some chaperone-less fun? “Officer Rest Center at Hotel Excelsior on Via Veneto (Via Ganorrhea)!” Yeah, that’s what he said and how he spelled it. I know he knows how to spell “gonorrhea.” On the chance the “Via Ganorrhea” was a street in Rome, I Googled it in Google Maps. What came up were pins for about a thousand doctors offices. I’m thinking he misspelled it, after all.  “Via” is Italian for “way” or “street.” I believe. I tried Googling it as a street and no luck. Is it a joke?  The officer’s rest center is on Via Veneto, but you chance getting gonorrhea while there? Then we have this note in his diary following that comment, “5thArmy is running the worlds largest brothel!!” Maybe that explains it?

“23 Aug – The French Marquis liberated Paris! The advance continues. I guess: Shortly the 5thArmy will enter France by way of Italy.”

“2 Sept – We moved to San Casciano, 15 miles below Florence. The push to drive the Krauts out of Italy has begun. The Battle of France is over – the Battle of Germany is about to begin!” France is liberated, at this point in our story, and the Allies are about to cross into Germany.

Back to Italy again. “Florence – the art center of the world. I’m disappointed! It may be the war or I don’t appreciate art! Just another Italian city. Germans blew all bridges except Ponte Vecchio – footbridge. All art still hidden. First saw the city on 3rdSept. Artillery still around city – Germans only 6 miles away. That may explain my feelings! Surprised at amount of goods still for sale – clothes & expensive items but no food. Moral: Don’t live in a big city during a war.”

“8 Sept – Visited Pisa. It’s a ghost town. Not a civilian there. In fact, the town is hardly there … Only section not ruined is that around the tower … It too has the scars of battle. Cathedral of Santa Maria Majore beautiful. Built in 1063.”

MB took this pic of the tower.

“TD as house physician at Hotel Excelsior. A pleasant week. Good food and service.” (TD = Temporary Duty. We used to call it “TDY” in the AF.) “Searchlight Sam, Tina & Lucia!!!” I have no idea who Searchlight Sam was. He closed that with three exclamation points just like I typed it so it must have been very important to him. He follows it up with, “What a time!” Is Sam is a friend adept at “searching” out girls? if so, draw your own conclusions about Tina and Lucia.

“30 Sept – We move to Pratolino, 12 km above Florence. Still nothing to do.”

“13 Oct – Move to Cafaggiolo 18 miles above Florence. Ambulances working all over Italy. Some are with 16th Evac, C.G.B & Co is evacuating the 2 platoons of 601.” I don’t know what C.G.B. is but something big he never explains happened for them to bug-out. I recall him telling a story once about returning to the hospital after being away for some reason, and it was gone—as in evacuated gone, leaving him behind. This must be that incident.

“17 Oct – Awarded the Army Plaque & Clasp by General Clark for outstanding service during June. We were with the French and evacuated every French casualty via air. The citation reads as follows:

“The 403rd Coll Co is awarded the 5thArmy Plaque & Clasp for exceptionally meritorious performance of duty during the month of June 1944. This unit was charged with the responsibilities of facilitating the airborne system of evacuating casualties. During the advances both south & north of Rome this organization maintained close contact with the constantly changing battle zone & was able to evacuate thousands of casualties without loss of a single patient’s life. Reliance is put upon the 403rd Coll Co to maintain its record in days that lie ahead. Mark W. Clark, Lt. Gen. U.S. Army – Commanding.”

This must have been a nice feather in the cap of the 403rd Collection Company commander, Capt. M.B. Casteix, Jr.

“2 Nov – Well, looks like my guess of the end on 26 Nov will fall short. Another winter in Italy is almost too much I can think of. It will be miserable … That old rumor of the 5thArmy going to India has cropped up again.” Evidently, he had predicted the surrender of Germany by late November?

“1 Dec – Operas in Florence, La Boheme, Manon, Barber. Good singing, excellent scenery.”

Continued…

Advertisements

4 Comments

Filed under Family History, History Lessons, War Stories

A Wartime Diary – Part 5

Part 1 here.

Part 2 here.

Part 3 here.

Part 4 here.

As we pick up the action in my dad’s wartime diary and picture album, we left our intrepid hero at Caserta, Italy with the 5thArmy on the road to Rome. They will soon encounter stiff resistance to that trip, a mountain top monastery called Monte Cassino.

On 26 January they moved up to Mignano with the 10thField (Hospital). Mignano is just southeast of Cassino. He mentions a “new landing at Netturno,” but there was no Netturno that I can find. There was a landing at Anzio in February 1944, and this may be what he is referring to if we assume he is not still in the 26 January entry. He mentions that the 95thEvacuation Hospital was bombed by the Germans. So much for honoring the red cross.

Another break from the war– “June Clyde, Louise Allbritton, Harry Barris give show & have lunch with us. Movie stars pooie (SIC)!” I guess he wasn’t impressed? I Googled them, and both women were real lookers, especially Louise. Evidently, looks aren’t everything…

The next entry says they got some R&R at Sorrento, which is down near Naples. He seems to focus on the hot water baths he got there and “modern bars” and a visit to Capri. They rode the Funiculare (Funicular), which is a cable car system used in mountains.

Another visit by a movie star, John Garfield. This one impressed him more. “Good show!”

Back to the war – “Squalor in most Italian villages: no sanitation & waste thrown in street. No one seems to have ambition to improve himself.”

I am noticing MB having a series of mood swings. Sometimes he speaks highly of Italy and its people and other times not. He has been overseas for almost two years at this point, and I am suspecting the war is wearing on him. I imagine he has seen his share of blood and gore by now with more to come. The USO shows seemed to help, but a man has his limits. This becomes more obvious later in his diary.

“Transferred to the 403rd Collection Company. Take command on 15 Mch 44. 403rdworking with the 38thEvac.”

“First day of spring! We’ve spent the winter in Italy – how much longer? Haven’t gotten very far but far enuf! 24 Mch: who said spring is here? It’s cold: saw first real snow of winter today!”

And then this happens: “Vesuvius erupts! One village buried. San Gregoio barely misses. Mountains of lava – still hot & smoking after 2 weeks. Dust on Capri.”

“15 Apr we move up to Mignano to support the 194th F. A. Gr. who are working with 8thArmy. Business should be slow.” This entry is confusing. There was a 194th Field Artillery Battalion in the area at this time. The 8thArmy is British not American. And what does the “Gr.” mean? The 194th was a National Guard unit, but then most units in the Army in WWII were NG. Another mystery… (UPDATE: I think 194th F. A. Gr might be the 194th French Auxiliary Goumiers? The “Goums” get mentioned below.)

“Apr 25 – Kraut artillery hits British ammo dump nearby. Like gigantic 4 July celebration. Flares, tracers, etc go up!”

He has learned that being a company commander has its drawbacks. “Running a company is a terrible headache: equipment problems, HQ always worrying you, inspections, etc.”

“April 28 – Shelled! Krauts put eight shells 75 yards from us during supper. Mess kits went flying!”

“May 8 – The big push to Rome is due any day now. Shortly after will come the invasion (I hope).” The invasion he is referring to is the Normandy Invasion on 6 June 1944. In a post a few lines down he predicts the date pretty close. Rome was taken about the time the D-Day landings in France took place, which overshadowed the news of the capture of Rome.

We have another break from the war – “Our British friends at Mignano. Bill Waller and Charlie Walker… The most amusing & generous characters I’ve met!”

Bill and Charlie in berets?

“An amazing war, this! Here we sit seeing movies right under the noses of the Krauts. We’re 5 ½ miles from the front. Easy gun range!”

“11 May 2300 hrs –This is it!! The big push to Rome and beyond is on. H-hour is at hand! Never has any force of comparable size had the striking power of this one. Firepower is terrific. We hold complete mastery of the air & everyone confident that we will not be stopped.”

And here he predicts the Normandy date, “The big channel show should start in 2-3 weeks from now. It’s the beginning of the end!!!” Using the 11 May date of the entry and adding 3 weeks gets us to 1 June. The invasion took place on 6 June. It was scheduled to be earlier, but weather forced a delay.

“18 May – The push continues. Tough rugged fighting, but we’re pushing ‘em back. Cassino finally fell!!!” It fell only after the Allies bombed it into rubble. The problem was the Germans made better use of the rubble than the buildings there before the bombing.

“23 May – We move to Rongolisi to evac 425th French Evac & 405th French Field Hosps. They’re keeping us busy. They’re set up in orchard, olive trees, grape vines, & cherry trees. Cherries good!” I am just a little surprised he didn’t take time to make some cherry bounce here.

MB’s company is supporting French units and will be involved in air evacuation of the wounded. They will excel at their jobs and get a commendation from HQ 5th Army as we shall see.

Chow where and when you can.

23 May Continued – “Beachhead begins push.” The Anzio beachhead most likely what he is referring to. Back in February, the Americans attempted a flanking movement and landed a large force at Anzio, which is between Cassino and Rome. The landing force remained bottled up around the town of Anzio until the big push for Rome in May. “It’s all over but the fighting! Watch for another landing above Rome as soon as we join the Anzio boys.”

“26 May – We move again! Can’t keep up with the front. We’re at Pico (the front lines two days ago).”

“31 May – Who says the Luftwaffe is dead? Bet the papers home don’t tell about German air activity here. All I hear over our radio is ‘no enemy planes were seen during the daylight yesterday.’ Yeah, what about nite? We’ve had raids almost every nite since the push started. They cover everything from the front to Naples, dropping bombs indiscriminately & strafing anything. They rarely cause much damage but the nuisance value is great. Seldom more than 20-30 planes.”

“The French are proving the point that they are good soldiers. Given good weapons, they will stack up against any soldier in the world. Their advance has been the most rapid & over some of the toughest terrain. They are holding about ½ of the front. The Goums are wonderful.”

He is referring to the Les Goumiers Marocains. The Moroccan Goumiers were indigenous soldiers who served in auxiliary units attached to the French army. While nominally in the service of the Sultan of Morocco,  they served under French officers. They were feared night fighters and preferred to use knives when possible.

Fifth Army commander Mark Clark had this to say about the Goumes, “In spite of the stiffening enemy resistance, the 2ndMoroccan penetrated the Gustave [sic] Line in less than two day’s fighting. The next 48 hours on the French front were decisive. The knife-wielding Goumiers swarmed over the hills, particularly at night, and General Juin’s entire force showed an aggressiveness hour after hour that the Germans could not withstand. Cerasola, San Giorgio, Mt. D’Oro, Ausonia, and were seized in one of the most brilliant and daring advances of the war in Italy… For this performance, which was to be a key to the success of the entire drive on Rome, I shall always be a grateful admirer of General Juin and his magnificent FEC.”

“4 June – We made it!!! We entered Rome this A.M.! The end of 9 months of bitter, backbreaking, disheartening fighting. We won’t stop here! Now we can think of the INVASION!” The Normandy landings were two days later.

North Africa, Sicily, and Italy were never intended to be a way to enter Germany. It was a compromise with Churchill’s demand to attack the “soft underbelly” of the Axis and drive Italy out of the war. It was also to take some pressure off the Russians on the eastern front who were demanding a second front to help them. It worked. Elsewhere I mentioned an incident when my father-in-law was shot down over Sicily. On his way back to North Africa on an LST, they picked up a German pilot who had been shot down the night before and was floating around in the Med. Bobby, my FIL, made friends with him during the voyage and was told by the German he had been on the eastern front and only recently transferred to Italy.

We will stop here for now. There is more here…

2 Comments

Filed under Family History, History Lessons, War Stories

A Wartime Diary – Part 4

Part 1 here.

Part 2 here.

Part 3 here.

Continuing MB Casteix’s wartime diary/experiences…

MB and his company left Bizerte on a British LST, HMS Bruiser, on 25 September 1943 and arrived at the Salerno, Italy beachhead on 28 September. He describes a storm “the first night” at Salerno that “flattened to the ground” their hospital tent. The wounded were moved to a barn, and none were injured further by the incident. He goes on to say, “The boys worked like Trojans,” setting up the hospital. “By the second day things going smoothly. Malaria is rampant – we clean up the barn and make a ward out of it.”

He then goes on to tell of the Italian family that owned the barn. “They are destitute and almost all are sick except 67-year-old grandmother. No doctors around. We take care of them. Grandmother has one tooth & says she is saving it to bite Mussolini’s nose off!” Go granny!

Back to the landing on the 28th– MB was quartered in a compartment at the very stern of the ship. For those who don’t know, the LST (Landing Ship, Tank) was designed for beach landings to transport heavy equipment ashore such as tanks and trucks. They were 380 feet long with “barn doors” that opened in the bow and a ramp behind them that was lowered once the doors were open. They were flat-bottomed and very shallow draft to allow them to get right up next to the beach—but miserable places to be in rough seas. Running up to the beach sometimes left them stuck there. The one in the image above is totally beached and will have to wait for high tide to get off. To get off the beach, as they approached it, they dropped an anchor from the stern in the deeper water behind them and ran out the chain as they neared the beach. They later used that to winch the ship into water deep enough to navigate under engine power.

MB was not expecting any of that. He said when they dropped that stern anchor, which was right over their heads, it made so much noise in that confined compartment it sounded like they had been bombed. It scared the occupants so much they thought they might be about to sink.

Along about here in his diary, MB begins to give more details. He speaks more of what he is observing and feeling like “rain and mud again – beginning to get cold.” His entries aren’t complete stories but do give a few more details that help flesh-out what is happening. We still have to speculate on some of it, and I might not be totally accurate with that.

Then under the heading “Sights of War-Torn Italy,” we get the following, “People eat black bread and spaghetti – No meat!. No water in big cities. Battipaglia (a town near the landing beaches at Salerno) worse that Bizerte  – shells holes along the road – burned out G tanks – Docks at Naples shambles – No H2O in Naples – Altavilla – Agropoli.” The war has had its very negative effect on Italy. The retreating Germans destroy anything of any military value not already destroyed by the fighting. Keep in mind the fighting isn’t some distant event out in the open country away from the towns. It is taking place everywhere, including in the towns. Citizens are being displaced from their homes and later returning to find them destroyed, assuming they weren’t killed in the process. Food is particularly hard to come by in the combat zones. So is clean safe drinking water.

“Second platoon sets up Air Evac Hospital right next to the airport. In sound of artillery – Germans shell spot we are to move in!”

There was some interaction with Italian civilians. “Italian family invites Kirk and me to supper: spaghetti, potatoes, and wine.” That an Italian family was able to do this is astounding, but they obviously wanted to show their gratitude to their liberators in some way. This food and wine are probably some they had hidden away, and only with liberation can they afford to be so generous. MB didn’t say, but I would be willing to bet they brought some Army “delicacies” like canned Spam and chocolate for their hosts.

On the Italian countryside, “People apparently poor. Dirt and filth almost like Arabs, but houses are clean inside. Vallo Lucania clean little town in mountains. So many Italians speak English and many have been to U. S., usually Brooklyn! Kids all over.”

“Apples and nuts – cheap and good.”

“Naples – Kids begging & trying to sell anything & everything … Plenty of jewelry and gloves. Girls at any price – One boy got it for a cigarette & the next one for a match! Bomb damage – Buildings blown up by Germans.”

It wasn’t all horror: “Dinner in Italian restaurant & singers.” I’m guessing that was in Naples? Makes you wonder how they managed to have enough to stay in business.

“Rail yards at Caserta – supply train bombed: Ammo & airplane parts & motors … Cars blown 30 yards …”

He then goes on to describe Pompeii: “… Huge city, well laid out …”

He mentions a dinner with “Palmieri’s relatives,” which I am guessing are the Italian relations of an Italian-American in his unit? This was quite common. Many Americans had relatives back in Europe and they often had a chance to encounter them even during the war.

An Italian doctor (at the dinner?) describes the horrors of the German occupation, “The Germans destroyed the country, railroads, and bridges…” Then MB gets personal with this comment, “They took the doctor’s shaving kit and spectacles!” To quote the frustrated doctor, “What can they do with my spectacles?” He also says, “They destroyed homes in the village of no military value.” The doctor didn’t understand, but without his glasses, he could not render aid to the enemy (Allied wounded)  or even his fellow Italians, which would force that problem on the Americans, French, and British to deal with.

Hospital Italy

Battle of Volturno

Volturno is north of Naples and on the road to Rome. Of the battle, he says, “Terrible fight. Germans almost push British back. A-36s deciding factor & B-26s & 75mm cannon clean out German positions.” The A-36 was a ground attack version of the P-51 Mustang. The B-26 was a two engine medium bomber.

MB’s next entry says simply, “Upfront with 45th Division Rangers … Germans over hill popping shell over & by us.” This must be the period I mentioned in the first post of this series when he was temporarily assigned to Darby’s Rangers as their surgeon. If you have seen the movie Darby’s Rangers with James Gardner playing Col Darby … MB isn’t in it. Evidently, his part ended up on the cutting room floor. 😉 He did tell one story about that time, besides the one about the Rangers lined up for chow while under fire. (They musta been hungry?) After recovering from his wounds, Darby’s surgeon that MB had replaced temporarily returned to the outfit one morning. Darby turned to MB and said, “Captain, you’re relieved now. You can return to your unit, but you are welcome to stay and join us for breakfast.” I suppose, recalling that the Rangers got shot at a lot and having had his fill of “rangering,” MB replied, “Thank you, Colonel, I’ll be leaving now.” As in RIGHT now.

Evacuating Wounded

The war must have eased up some because the next entry says: “Dances at Caserta – pretty Italian girls and lots of fun.” It isn’t what you think because the next entry says simply, “Custom of chaperone” and no explanation. Sorry. I’m guessing some stern-eyed Italian mother was there to make sure everything stayed on the up-and-up.  Then he names the fun, “Sara, Rosina, Giovanna, Wanda.” Sorry, no pics of the “fun.” I wonder where they are now?

OK, enough fun—back to the war—albeit only briefly.

MB goes on to describe a 250-bed hospital they set up at Caserta and the first patient is a VD—and it quickly fills up with, I am guessing more VD patients?

Then he mentions more “fun” and operas and a dinner at the Falcone home. I don’t know who that is, but it may be the home mentioned earlier? Guess who shows up? Yep. Sara, Rosella, Giovanna, & Wanda. He spells it “Rosina” in the first entry and “Rosella” in the second. But this time wine got mentioned along with the “fun.” And no mention of chaperones. Hummmm…

He also observes that the battle is still raging, and Italy is the worse place in the world to fight a war—but he is with Sara, Rosina/Rosella, Giovanna, & Wanda. War is hell.

Continued…

2 Comments

Filed under Family History, History Lessons, War Stories

A Wartime Diary – Part 3

Part 1 here.

Part 2 here.

Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily began on the night of 9-10 July 1943. The British landed at the southeastern tip of the Island, and the Americans landed to the west of them along Sicily’s southern coast. The landings went off with a few significant problems, mainly the American C-47 transports carrying paratroopers and pulling gliders being misidentified as German by the invasion fleet and fired upon. A number of these aircraft were shot down (friendly fire is never friendly) and most of the rest scattered to avoid being shot down with many dropping their paratroopers far from the designated drop zones. This incident repeated itself a few days later up the east coast of Sicily when American C-47s carrying British paratroopers were shot-up crossing over the invasion fleet. My father-in-law was flying that mission. Details here.

Flies?

Meanwhile, back in North Africa MB was running a VD clinic and being told they were to shut it down, and he was wondering what they would do with their patients. They stop taking patients on 23 July and close the clinic on 3 August, rejoining the regiment on 5 August at Tinka, Tunisia, which is northwest of Tunis and southwest of Bizerte. “Not a building standing…” was his comment about Bizerte.

It was right about here that he had the “little red wagon” incident I spoke of in earlier posts. Details here.

The infamous “little red wagon.” AKA sleeping bag.

 

The entries along here also mention he was promoted to captain on 28 July followed by paradoxical entries about multiple air raids and swimming in the Med.

On 5 Sept 43, the 16thMed Regt was reorganized into two medical battalions, the 161stand the 162nd. Company D was reduced to two platoons and all their vehicles taken away. Company D became the 601stCollection Company.

Medical battalions were reorganized to give each collecting company a clearing element, the two platoons of the clearing company being supplemented for this purpose by a third clearing platoon. Each regimental combat team in the assault was to be accompanied by one of these collecting-clearing companies, which had demonstrated their efficiency in training exercises. Each task force was to have one ambulance platoon in addition to those of the medical battalions, and at least one field hospital unit. The field hospital platoons were to be used for forward-area surgery and as holding units for non-transportables, combining the functions performed in Tunisia by the surgical hospital and the corps medical battalion clearing stations. MB has gone from a VD clinic to a collection company assigned to a regimental combat team, collecting and clearing wounded close to the front.

Meanwhile, Sicily has been taken and the invasion of Italy has begun.

 A little soldier’s humor I found stuck in MB’s photo album.

He then mentions that Italy capitulated, but the Germans were still very much in the war in Italy. MB and his unit were alerted to ship out for Italy. The Fifth Army landed at Salerno, Italy on 9 September 43. MB’s unit boarded an LST (Landing Ship, Tank) and left Bizerte on 25 September 43. He described the experience as “pleasant trip – hot ship.”

Continued…

Comments Off on A Wartime Diary – Part 3

Filed under Family History, History Lessons, War Stories

A Wartime Diary – Part 2

Part 1 here

England 18 Aug 1942.

MB’s Army experience soon took him to England where the Americans were staging men and equipment for Operation Torch, the Allied landings in North Africa in November 1942. An excellent study on the subject can be found in the book, An Army At Dawn by the historian Rick Atkinson.

SS Orcades

MB’s diary entry begins with the cryptic “Orcades” followed by “England” and the date. I did some research and found there was a ship, the SS Orcades, a passenger liner that was pressed into service during the war as a troopship. I am assuming he traveled to England on the SS Orcades and arrived on 18 August. It was torpedoed and sunk two months later.

What follows that is a long list of things that must have impressed him. “Trains – Underground – Buses – Taxis – Westminster Abby – Buckingham Palace – Piccadilly – Tower and Bridge – Parliament …” The list goes on and on for two pages to mention just about everything you can ever think of related to England. He does mention war-related topics like his first bombing, fire watch, officers club, rationing, and bomb shelters as well as “Lt and Mrs. Cox” (whoever they were), and lastly “English girls.”

See what I mean? I wish I had asked him to elaborate before he died.

MB on left. Caption on back says, “Air Raid – What not to do.”

Africa

24 Nov 1942

His next entry begins as above, but above that is scribbled “Dutchess (SIC) of Bedford.” Some Googling discovered that was a ship, the SS Duchess of Bedford. Further research indicated she carried a regiment of the 1stDivision, US, to North Africa for the Operation Torch D-Day landings. Those landings were on 8 November 1942.

SS Duchess of Bedford

The date of the diary entry seems to be a bit of a disconnect. I found another reference to the Duchess making a second trip in November, but she carried some British troops and left Liverpool on 26 November arriving in Oran on 8 December. I do recall MB saying he landed at Oran, which was one of three main landing areas. I am guessing that MB boarded the Duchess with the Brits a couple of days before she set sail, and he saw that as the beginning of his African adventure. During the war, MB developed a real fondness for the British and often spoke highly of them. He didn’t like their plum pudding, however.

They set up a bivouac area at Hassi Ameur about 8 miles east of Oran. From here on to the end of the North African campaign he seems to be running a VD clinic much of the time. It gets mentioned often.

What then follows in his diary is another long list of names and observations that must have had some meaning to him. I will list only some that seem significant to his situation. “Mountains against blue sea – Sunrises & Sunsets – Stars – First Air Raid – Veiled Women, Jackasses, Woman pulling cart after ass died…”

That last point was a story he told several times. It seems the Arabs were evacuating a forward area and passing by the front gate of their camp. The jackass pulling an over-loaded cart died right at the front gate. The Arab simply unhitched the deceased ass, hooked up his wife to the cart, and continued on their merry way, leaving the corpse of his jackass to rot in the North African sun.

He goes on to mention other sights like olive trees, mountains, pup tents (small two man tents), and rifles—rifles? The Medical Corps was not normally issued small arms and were considered non-combatants with the red cross emblem emblazoned on tents, vehicles, and helmets, giving them some level of protection from being bombed or shot at. War can sometimes be “civilized,” you know?

In their “infinite wisdom,” the Army decided to arm the medics and issued them M1 rifles, and their Jeeps were equipped with scabbards to carry them in. The Germans captured one of the “armed” Jeeps and sent it back with a note that said, to the effect, that unless this practice was immediately stopped they would no longer honor the red cross. The rifles were promptly confiscated, ending that misadventure.

Hard to see, but the caption says, “Hospital Africa.”

The comedian, Martha Raye, must have visited them on a USO tour because she got mentioned in the diary, but only her name shows up, nothing about how much he enjoyed—or not—her show. Hollywood types were very active during the war, doing USO tours. This gets mentioned often in the diary.

MB goes on to refer to the heat and a sandstorm called the “Sirocco,” which he explains in greater detail in a later entry as “60-mile wind, scorching hot off Sahara, sears everything … carries dust that clouds the sky & obscures the horizon.”

I then found an entry that said only “resupplied.” I believe that is a reference to a story he told several times of how the ship carrying most of their equipment was sunk off Gibraltar by a German sub, and they were left to depend on the British to supply and feed them until they could get new equipment.

The Germans were pushed back east toward Tunis during the rest of the winter of 1943 with Tunis taken on 13 May. The invasion of Sicily was already in the planning at that point.

This photo was dated 7 July 1943 (three days before the Sicily landings) and was probably taken in Tinja, Tunisia. The drinks were orange-aid, according to the comments on the back, which also said, “War is Hell!” That is MB in the middle.

Continued…

2 Comments

Filed under Family History, History Lessons, War Stories

A Wartime Diary – Part 1

This will begin a seven-part series of posts that were taken from the WWII diary of my father, Dr. M.B. Casteix, Jr. It will also draw upon his WWII photo album for some of the images you will see here. My plan is to release the seven “chapters” over the next two weeks, concluding it on Memorial Day

Why am I doing this? Because it needs to be done. We ought to remember the sacrifices of those who have gone before us, sacrifices that gave us the freedom we enjoy today and how precious that freedom is. We also need to understand that we, like them, might be called upon to make similar sacrifices to maintain that liberty.

Before we start, some background on the man:

MB, as we called him (even his kids did), was Martial Bruno Casteix, Jr. His French grandfather immigrated to America, landing in New Orleans in the mid-1860s. His grandmother was also French as was his mother. We can safely say he was French, yes? Yes. He spoke very little French, which I find surprising considering his French background and all the time he spent in support of French units during the war. Maybe he spoke more than I realized because I found some French grammar studies/notes in the back of his diary.

Technically, MB was my stepfather, but he was the only “father” I ever really knew—and he was a good one. My mother married him after divorcing my birth father. I was five at the time. They had two girls together, Jeanne and Martia.

MB was born in New Orleans and lived all of his life there up until WWII. After the war, he resided in Kenner, a suburb of New Orleans, but that’s another story. His father, Martial, was a pharmacist and owned several drug stores in New Orleans but lost them during the depression. Martial and MB’s mother, May, were bona fide New Orleans characters. Go here if you would like to read about some of their antics.

MB was very bright as was his younger sister, Marguerite called “Margie.” She was born on MB’s birthday exactly two years after he was born. For a while, the family resided above one of the drug stores in a building on Bourbon Street that is now the Famous Door Bar. If you are ever in New Orleans, drop into this famous French Quarter haunt and have a drink where MB lived as a child. I told some tales of that period in his life here so I won’t repeat myself now.

As I said, MB was a very bright kid; he skipped two grades in school and entered LSU medical school two years younger than most of his classmates. (See UPDATE below.) He graduated in 1941 and since he spent his schooling in New Orleans he claims he never set foot on the LSU campus in Baton Rouge. Upon graduation, he immediately went into the Army. He was 22 years old at the time.

The image above was taken before the war and probably while he was in med school.

Lt. M. B. Casteix

Co. D

16th Med. Regt.

That is what the first page says. After several pages of addresses for friends and family, we find the first date in his diary, 18 Aug 1942, and that is for an entry made in England. MB was inducted into the Army right after graduation. He once told me he received no formal military training. He got uniforms, a commission, and orders that took him to Camp Carlyle, PA and then England and ultimately to North Africa and Italy. Because of that lack of military training, he said he was never quite sure who he was supposed to salute while touring Washington DC.

Unfortunately, I never took notes during our many discussions about his wartime service, which were usually in the nature of short comments or brief “war stories” over the 50+ years of our time together. Later in life when we went on fishing trips to Alabama, after a day of fishing on the private lake of my hunting club and with a few adult beverages under his belt, MB would often tell a story or two. But I never recorded those either for which I kick myself because he told many wonderful stories.

MB served during the North African, Sicilian, and Italian Campaigns all the way to Rome and beyond. His experiences were many and varied. For a period he was attached to Darby’s Rangers has his surgeon when Darby’s regimental surgeon was wounded. He spoke of the “crazy” Rangers forming up for chow in the middle of an artillery barrage—they were on the receiving end, not the giving.

He once mentioned an orderly who came down with VD, and he treated him with sulfur, the usual treatment for that before penicillin became common. Unfortunately, the man turned out to be allergic to sulfur and almost died. “But I cured him of syphilis,” was his closing comment on that story.

He told another story of yet another orderly (the same one?) who wasn’t all that right in the head (MB’s description). He disappeared one day during an artillery barrage—incoming again. They found him a few days later. He had burrowed into the side of a hill and sealed himself in along with a case of Italian wine. He was passed-out drunk.

The image above is of the Company D, 3rd Platoon officers. Front – Bob Sharoff, MB, Sal Iraci (Platoon Leader); Back – Tom Sherman, Son Carroll.

There aren’t many stories in his diary, and the few we do find there are rather sketchy, leaving much to your imagination. In fact, his diary doesn’t follow any normal format we would associate with a wartime diary, especially in the beginning. Mostly it consists of names of towns, sights, events, happenings, people, and those are limited to only one or two words as if he intended them merely as a reminder to recall the details later. Later he did get just a bit more descriptive and reveal some of his inner thoughts and feelings as he described the amazing things he was experiencing. We get just a taste of what life was like for him. Unfortunately, it leaves us wanting to know more.

In addition to his diary, I have his photo album. Based on one contact print in the album, I concluded that he used a 35mm camera. I never knew him to own a camera when I was growing up and I don’t know what happened to it. I do recall him telling me “they” developed the film in the chemicals for processing x-ray negatives, but I can’t figure out how he printed them without a proper enlarger to do that. A mystery like many in his diary…

Like the diary, the pictures leave us wanting a context to put them in. There are no notes in the album next to the images, and the backs of most had no comments there either. The few comments on pictures were often very brief with names of people I know nothing of. I’m not even sure where most were taken and will have to draw conclusions from their place in the album and the few images that do have dates on the back, assuming they are in order.

In this series, I will attempt to take what I can from his diary and photo album and turn it into some sort of a story. I hope you enjoy this little peek into the private life of M.B. Casteix.

UPDATE: I got a message from my sister, Jeanne, that adds more detail to MB skipping grades. I had heard he skipped two grades. Jeanne says it was three. The third one was 8th grade. She tells me this is what she recalls: “On the first day of 8th grade, his first year at St. Aloysius, he was playing and bonding with some boys. When the bell rang for them to line up, he lined up with his new friends and went to class. The next part is what I find hard to believe. It took St Aloysius three months to figure out where MB was. He was in class with his buddies in 9th grade! Making A’s, they left him there. Hence, he skipped 8th grade too!”

Continued

2 Comments

Filed under Family History, History Lessons, War Stories

The Little Red Wagon – Part 2

Back here I posted about my father’s “Little Red Wagon.” Recently, I discovered more about this incident, which is what this all about. To save you the time of going to the link, here is the story.

It seems that MB, then serving with the 5th Army as a physician in North Africa during WWII (and later Sicily and Italy), asked his dad, Martial, back here in New Orleans to please go to Sears and purchase a sleeping bag and send it to him overseas. The U.S, as usual, was unprepared for the war or properly equip its army. It got cold at night in the North African desert, which is where this incident took place. Martial did as asked and dutifully ordered his son his requested sleeping bag. Well, Sears screwed up. I will let them explain what happened. Below are two scans from the New Orleans Sear’s Store Newsletter that has the details.

And here is a picture of the “Little Red Wagon” from a photo MB sent home to his dad and his comments on the back.


As I recall, MB said the Little Red Wagon did not go to waste. They actually used it to move stretchers. As the Sears New Orleans Store Newsletter indicates, they did send him a sleeping bag.

Comments Off on The Little Red Wagon – Part 2

Filed under Family History, Kenner, War Stories

Letters From the Front – Italy 1944 – Part 2

I posted a letter from my dad, Dr. M.B. Casteix, to his father, Martial, written in October of 1944 and seen here. He wrote a second letter to his sister, Margie, a week before that one, which is the subject of this post. These are the only two letters I have from him during that period. I do have his diary written while overseas and will post some things from it later.

Sharing the same birthday, Margie was exactly two years younger than MB. Margie was married to Robert L Manard, Jr. who was serving overseas as a pilot, and they had one child at that time, Melanie, called “Mel” in this letter. She was born on 21 Oct 1943, a year before this letter was written. She would have been only a year old, which makes MB’s comment about Mel thinking he was a “stingy old uncle” a bit confusing. MB is obviously replying to something Margie said in an earlier letter that is lost to us. Both MB and Margie had a well-developed sense of humor so this must have been an inside joke between them.

As for the content, I have no idea what MB was talking about in the second paragraph. The letter goes on to describe what we called “R&R” (Rest & Recreation) in a later war. The setting is Rome, Italy, and MB gives us a glimpse on what R&R was like, at least for officers, in 1944. He closes the letter with a request for some foods unobtainable over there.

Enjoy a little trip back in time.

As usual, click on the image for a larger view.

 

 

 

Comments Off on Letters From the Front – Italy 1944 – Part 2

Filed under Family History, War Stories

Letters From The Front – Italy 1944 – Part 1

I was going through some old family files and found a letter written by my father, Dr. M. B. Casteix, Jr., to his father back in New Orleans. MB was serving in Italy with the 5th Army as a physician. His father, Martial, was a pharmacist and had owned several drug stores in New Orleans, which he lost during the depression. The letter is a look inside the mind of someone overseas during the war and what we might call dealing with the mundane issues of life experienced by a soldier and those of his family back home. I found it particularly poignant. I’ll let the letter speak for itself.

(Note: Clicking on each page will take you to a larger version.) Part 2 is here.

 

 

2 Comments

Filed under Family History, War Stories

Catahoula Book 4

We are getting close. Book 4, Buffalo Woman, is out with the beta readers to look for problems. I am hoping for a release in May at the latest, but keep in mind I usually have to eat my estimated publication dates. Meanwhile, here is a short excerpt. This scene is out on the Great Plains of Nebraska in winter. Ethan and Angel are buffalo hunting with Grand Duke Alexei of Russia.

*****

We had not gone more than a couple of miles, and I spied about a hundred buffalo of to our right down on the plain of a wide shallow valley. Alexei had rejoined his group but also saw it and pointed to it. “Angelique, now is your chance,” he yelled.

Angel had, of course, taken notice and was looking at me with a pleading expression on her face. “Now, it’s your turn,” I said to her.

The rest of the party was having a good time laughing and drinking champagne when Angel and I broke off from the group and headed for the herd. We still had ample daylight to make a kill and get it skinned and the meat packed if we wasted no time. When he saw us galloping off after the buffalo, Alexei cheered us on and called a halt to the march to watch. He then called for binoculars to have a better view of the action out on the plain.

Angel was ahead of me some two lengths and driving her mount as hard as she could. We thundered down the gentle slope of the hill to the sound of pounding hooves and the rhythmic panting of our ponies. The herd stirred into motion at the sight of the two riders coming hard down on them. They broke into a loping gallop at first and then a hard run as we came up alongside of them. The thunderous sound of over 400 hooves pounding the earth into submission is truly awesome and sent shivers up my spine.

Angel was still ahead of me some two lengths and had already drawn the Sharps from its scabbard, having picked out an old bull along the right side and near the front of the herd as her trophy. I would rather she had selected one near the rear of the herd, but she was committed, and there was no turning back at that point. Like Alexei had experienced, her mount was not terribly interested in getting up close to the galloping buffalo, but she urged him on. She would get him within about four or five feet and bring the rifle to her shoulder while holding the reins in her teeth and managing the horse with her knees. As she was about to shoot, her pony pulled away and spoiled her shot.

I was close behind and slightly off to her side away from the buffalo. I kept looking back to be sure the tail end of the herd did not close in around us from behind. If they did and one of us should fall, he would be turned into a prairie pancake by the hooves of many massive buffalo running over him—or her.

She spurred her reluctant pony in closer once more and, with wide-eyed trepidation, he did move closer. And as before, just as she was about to shoot, his fear overcame her urging, and he reared and pulled away nearly throwing Angel. My heart went into my throat as Angel struggled to regain control and spur him to catch up with her buffalo.

This could not go on much longer. We were losing daylight. I saw only one solution. “Hang on! I’m coming!” I yelled as I urged my pony faster and caught up with Angel. As she forced her mount in closer, I pulled up against the other side of her and, using my horse, forced hers to move closer to the animals he was so fearful of. Protesting, he moved in tighter to the buffalo, but Angel and I were jammed against each other and riding full tilt beside a herd of panicked buffalo.

She was then within two or three feet of her selected bull, and we could both feel and smell their hot breath turned into steam as they huffed to expel and fill their lungs with another breath of life. “Take the shot!” I yelled.

Where she found the strength to do so with that heavy rifle I will never know, but managing the horse with the reins in her left hand, she threw the Sharps to her shoulder, cradled its fore end in her crook of her left elbow, and pointed the rifle at the big bull’s massive chest and pulled the trigger.

BAM!

 

 

Comments Off on Catahoula Book 4

Filed under Buffalo Woman, Catahoula Books