Tag Archives: WWII

A Wartime Diary – Part 7

Part 1 here.

Part 2 here.

Part 3 here.

Part 4 here.

Part 5 here.

Part 6 here.

This will be the seventh and final chapter. I hope you have enjoyed it.

In our little story, it is early December 1944, and the war is drawing to a close. There was much estimating of an early end, as suggested by MB’s guess of the war ending in late November and noted in the last post, but that didn’t happen. Hitler had one more effort up his sleeve, and the war in Europe dragged on for another five months. Japan went a bit longer. Later that month, Hitler began his drive into Belgium in what became known as the Battle of the Bulge. It caught the Allies off guard and, except for the lack of fuel for the German tanks, it might have been even more successful than it was. Of course, the Allies ultimately pushed the Germans back across the Rhine River and followed them into Germany.

In this final post of the series, events come together that are both sad and happy, events that changed my father’s life forever. Let’s begin.

MB wrote two letters home in October 1944 that I am in possession of. One was to his sister and the other was to his father. You might want to go read the one to his father here.

Then back to his diary and we find this entry: “6 Dec – Learned today of Dad’s death on Nov 20. I’ve lost my Rock of Gibraltar. Good luck Dad, and may God keep you.”

Martial B Casteix, Sr.

I can’t read that without tearing up. His mother died before the war of a disease that they developed a cure for only a couple of years later. He was close to his dad and worried about him back home having to work for K&B Drug Stores as a druggist after losing his own chain of stores during the Depression.

“Received orders to report home on T.D. If only I had been able to see Dad again.” The war was over for MB. Men in his unit gave up “points” they had earned toward going home so MB could have enough points to go home to attend to his dad’s affairs. He arrived in the New Orleans area on 26 January. His sister, Margie, had already handled most of their dad’s affairs and buried him. MB remained with her and her young daughter, Melanie, in Kenner where she lived. He eventually settled there.

Meanwhile, the war dragged on, and MB was supposed to report back to Italy. There were rumors his unit would be sent to the Pacific Theatre. That never happened, and MB never returned to his unit, which leads to another story, the last in this series.

While the war in Europe was still raging, MB got orders to report dockside for passage back to Italy. When he showed up, they had no papers on him and sent him home. He received more orders to report for shipping out to Italy. He reported, and once again they said they didn’t have him on the manifest and sent him home. I don’t recall how many times this happened. It was at least twice and probably three times, possibly more. Meanwhile, the war ends, first Europe and then Japan, and everyone is coming home and getting discharged.

But the Army seemed to forget about MB, leaving him in limbo, and he never goes back. Technically, he is AWOL – Absent Without Leave. Meanwhile, MB set up practice in Kenner. He was never paid for any of his time in the service after December 1944. My mother wanted him to go after the government for back pay and interest! She was convinced it must be in the hundreds of thousands by then. MB would just laugh and reply, “But they might put me in Leavenworth?” That usually ended it, but the story was told and retold so many times when I was a kid that it became a joke that the Army would eventually come after MB.

And then they did.

My sister Martia was working as a receptionist in MB’s office. She was an adult by then. This was some thirty years or more after the war. And one afternoon in walks a U.S. Army officer in uniform. “Is Major Casteix in?” Don’t know when, but somewhere along the way MB got promoted to major. No mention of it in his diary. Knowing the AWOL story well, Martia’s reaction was “Oh shit!” She went back to the examining room where MB was and told him, “The Army has come for you!”

“What are you talking about?” And she explained there was an Army officer in the waiting room asking for Major Casteix.

MB went out to meet the officer and identified himself. “I have something for you,” the officer replied, and he reached into his briefcase and pulled out an envelope. MB opened it, and it was his honorable discharge certificate.

That did it! My mother pushed even harder for MB to go after the Army for that back pay and the (by then she was convinced) multi-millions of dollars of interest that had accumulated in over thirty years. He never did.

Bass fishing in Alabama.

After the war, MB never traveled much or very far when he did travel. We frequently went to our summer house on Waveland, MS (and MB fished) and once to Panama City, FL on a short vacation (he fished there, too). Fishing was his second love (next to being a doctor). He spent countless days fishing in the Louisiana marshes and offshore. He loved to fish so much he even wrote a poem to fishing. You might get him to travel if there would be fish and a pole to use at the end of the journey. I took him bass fishing in Alabama a few times, and once we got him all the way to Abilene, TX, but that was for his grandson’s wedding (he didn’t fish there). He always said there was really only one place he wanted to visit—Italy, but he never made it back. He died in 2003.

I will close this series with the eulogy I gave at his funeral.

There are many ways to take the measure of a man. One is by the way he touches others. Some do this on a massive scale, through some discovery or invention that impacts the lives of millions. But some touch lives in a very personal way – one person at a time.

MB was just that sort of person. He touched others professionally as a physician.

Do you know how he came to practice medicine in Kenner? He wanted to go into pediatrics, but a war got in the way. After the war, MB continued his studies and lived in Kenner with his sister, Margie and her husband Robert Manard (most knew him as Son). But word got around in doctor-poor Kenner that there was a new one in town, and people began showing up on Son’s doorstep any time of the day or night looking for the doctor. Son finally had enough and took MB aside and told him, “I can deal with the sick kids throwing up on my rug, and the wounded bleeding on my sofa, but I just can’t handle it when people go into convulsions on my living room floor! GET AN OFFICE!”

He did and he practiced medicine as an old-fashioned family doctor in Kenner for more than fifty years.

But MB touched people in a way that was more than just the professional caring of a physician. He was the kind of person you liked being around, the kind of person who made the world a better place. He was the kind of person that you had no choice but to love.

There are some here today who did not personally know MB, but most of you here did know him. How many of you who did can say that he impacted your life, that your life would have been different had he not been a part of it? Either as a physician or personally? Raise your hands! Now, look around you.

MB (“Doc”) was not tall of stature, only about 5’6”, but if you accept the premise that a man can be measured by the lives he touches, then we have gathered here today to bid farewell to a giant.

And we were greatly blessed by the fact that this giant walked among us for 85 years. He will be sorely missed!

This is from a newspaper article about his retirement fifty years after the war.

 

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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.

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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.

 

 

 

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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.

 

 

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Memorial Day 2016

To all the veterans out there, I offer my sincere thanks for your service.

I was born in 1944, during World War II. In the postwar years, every kid I knew had a family member who served in the military during WWII, most only their fathers, but a few mothers also served in the military. So fresh on everyone’s memory, WWII was a subject of great interest to us kids, especially the boys and no doubt many of the girls, as well. Some of the veterans we knew would (could) not talk about their experiences, but others did, and perhaps had a need to speak of what they went through. Some of the stories were of harrowing experiences, and some were funny.

My father was a doctor who served with the 5th Army in North Africa, Sicily, and Italy, and he loved to tell of his experiences, including his period he was the battalion surgeon with Darby’s Rangers, filling in for Darby’s wounded surgeon, or the time he was sent over to help the Germans get their hospitals better organized. Some of his stories were poignantly funny, like the time his father ordered a sleeping bag from Sears to be shipped to him overseas, and they accidentally shipped  a little red wagon instead. Sears made good on the sleeping bag and did a PR release on the story in the newspapers back home. The pic below is of him in his “sleeping bag.” The caption on the back reads, “A little cramped, a little hard, but an excellent sleeping bag. July 1943.”

Red Wagon

One of the most interesting stories was one told by my wife’s father, Bobby Cristina, of when he was shot down over Sicily. Bobby was a pilot and flew C-47s, which were the most advanced airliners of the prewar period, the Douglas DC3. Many airlines turned their DC3s over to Uncle Sam, and they became C-47 Skytrains, the workhorses of the war. They were such a great design and so easy to service, many are still in use in countries with limited repair resources.

C-37

It was on the night of the third day of the invasion of Sicily. Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery’s British 8th Army was making headway up the east coast of Sicily but faced a daunting obstacle, the Simeto River. One bridge crossed it, the Primosole Bridge. Monty needed to capture that bridge intact to use to cross the Simeto, or his advance would be stalled until another could be built by engineers. British paratroopers of the 1st Parachute Brigade of the 1st Airborne Division were to be dropped around the bridge to capture it and hold it until Monty and the rest of the 8th Army arrived. One hundred and five American C-47 aircraft of the 60th, 62nd, and 64th Troop Carrier Groups, plus twelve British aircraft towing gliders were to carry the British paras to the objective in what was called Operation Fustian.

It did not go well.

The aircraft were routed right over the invasion fleet just offshore and were mistaken for Germans and fired upon by the Allies. This very situation had been encountered only a few days earlier on the first day of the invasion with similar disastrous results, something Bobby stood up in the briefing and pointed out. But he was told that would not happen again. But it did. Four aircraft were shot down, and nine were so badly damaged they had to return to North Africa.

Surviving aircraft formations had become disorganized, and the remaining force straggled over the coast for the drop zone (DZ). Lieutenant Cristina’s C-47 was one of them. He told me, “Lane, as we crossed the coast (in the dark), the tracers were coming up all around us. It looked like someone had stoked a fire sending embers up the chimney.” Tracer bullets have burning phosphorus in the base for the gunners to  see where the rounds are going. They are usually every fifth round, so for every one you see, there are at least four more you do not see. What the Allies were unaware of is that very day the Germans had brought in their 1st Parachute Division for the purpose of defending that bridge. Thirty-seven planes were shot down, and ten were so badly shot up with dead and wounded crews and paratroopers onboard they had to abort and return to Africa.

Nearly half of the assaulting force was lost—shot down or forced to abort because of damage!

Bobby’s plane was hit many times. Their radio operator was dead, and several paras were wounded as they approached the DZ, which was only a little ways inland. Bobby managed to find it and get his paratroopers out. All the while they were facing concentrated antiaircraft fire from the Germans. The op plan called for them to make a one-eighty degree turn after dropping the paratroopers and egress the same way they went in. Neither Bobby nor his copilot thought that was a very good idea under the circumstances and decided to keep going west and then head south for their base in North Africa.

While the aircraft was badly damaged, it was still airworthy—until it was hit in the nose by antiaircraft fire, which started a fire onboard. With that, they had to abandon the aircraft and bail out. They had dropped the paras at a low altitude and had slipped even lower when they were hit in the nose. Bobby ordered his copilot out while he managed the wounded C-47 with the cockpit filled with smoke and flames. He gave the copilot what he thought was enough time to get out, and since he figured he was very close to the ground, he pulled the nose of the aircraft up to gain some altitude before he jumped. He climbed out of his seat and put on his parachute, only to discover it didn’t fit. His copilot, a much shorter man, had grabbed the wrong parachute. Bobby squeezed his long and lanky frame into the very tight harness and headed for the rear door to bail out.

By then the plane had rolled over on its side and was headed for the deck as Bobby ran along the windows on the left side of the plane to the side door. There he found his crew chief with a head wound and out cold. Bobby pushed him out the side door, which then faced the ground, and pulled his rip cord as he did. Bobby dropped through the door right after him, and knowing he was very close to the ground, he pulled his own rip cord, risking getting his chute fouled on the tail of the plane.

He fell into the night, and his chute streamed overhead. After what seemed like an agonizingly long time, it finally blossomed and filled with air—violently stopping his free fall—just as his feet touched the ground. One second longer, and he would have splattered.

With his plane crashed and burning a few hundred yards away and Germans all around, he crawled on his belly in the dark and found a hay stack to hide in. After it got quiet, he crawled out and found his crew chief also crawling around on his belly. He had survived the jump and was conscious again. They hid in a bomb crater all day without water or food. By night their tongues were swollen, and they crawled on their bellies to a farm house where they sought aid for the crew chief’s head wound and Bobby’s burns. The Italian family offered to hide them from the Germans, but they refused, knowing if the Germans found them hiding the Americans, they would kill the whole family.

So they crawled west to get away from all the activity on the coast with plans to head south and the British lines when it was safer. They finally decided they were far enough inland to walk, and they did—right into an Italian patrol of fourteen men led by one officer. The two groups saw each other at the same time and froze. The Italian officer called out, “Germani?” Bobby replied, “(Expletive deleted) no! Americans!”

The much relieved Italians promptly surrendered to the much relieved Americans.

With prisoners in tow, they headed south and eventually reached British lines, turned in their prisoners and caught a ship back to North Africa. Bobby’s family back home had already been notified he was MIA (missing in action), but the Red Cross sent them a telegram telling them he was “safe somewhere in North Africa.”

Later after Sicily was secured, Bobby returned to the crash site. The pic below is of him standing on the wreckage of his C-47. The copilot who jumped with the wrong chute died. His chute didn’t open. Whether it malfunctioned, or he was too close to the ground and he failed to pull the rip cord in time, is unknown.

C47 Wreckage

Some of the British paratroopers landed as much as twelve miles from the DZ, but two companies managed to land close to the bridge and did take it—and held it for Montgomery.

Bobby was awarded the Purple Heart for his wounds and the Silver Star for his heroic actions that night when he attempted to save the life of his copilot and did save the life of his crew chief—plus taking fourteen Italian prisoners. And by the way, he was unarmed. He had left his pistol back in the barracks in North Africa.

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