Memorial Day has meaning in our family for more than just a day to remember war dead. On May 30, 1943, my parents were married in Kings Chapel in Boston. Now our extended family gets together on Memorial Day weekend for food and remembrance. And this Memorial Day weekend we added a new thing to celebrate, namely the marriage of our younger daughter. So it has been a busy weekend.
Memorial Day of 1944 was my parents’ first anniversary. They spent a pleasant day in New Orleans where my father was nearing the end of his six weeks at LaGarde General Hospital. The next week Jim and Liz packed up and traveled north to Camp Breckinridge, Kentucky. The camp was established in 1942 when the federal government took possession of 36,000 acres from 121 landowners, mostly active farmers. About a third of the landowners sold their land voluntarily but the rest lost their farms through eminent domain. Incredibly, over 70 years later, legal disputes continue over compensation to those landowners. The site of the Camp is in the small town of Morganfield, a little southwest of Evansville, Indiana, not far south of the Ohio River.
The camp was designed to train 30,000 troops annually but soon hosted 45,000, or three full Divisions. The vast majority of the troops were housed at the Camp, but as a married officer, my father was able to rent an apartment for he and Liz in Henderson, about 15 miles from the Camp. Upon his arrival at Breckinridge, Jim learned of his assignment to the 275th Engineer Combat Battalion of the 75th Infantry Division, with which he would serve until the end of the war. As Battalion Surgeon, my father was essentially the general practitioner for the 500 man battalion. He began to work out his routine of checkups, inspections of sanitary conditions and food preparation, and the normal run of medical complaints from the men.
In July, 1944, the 275th was sent about 25 miles east of Camp Breckinridge to train on the Green River. River crossings would be a crucial part of their duties in Europe, and they trained for several weeks in launching boats, various methods for crossing rivers, building temporary bridges, and other engineering problems. Jim stayed at the river camp with the Battalion during the week, returning to Henderson for weekends with my mother. The fishing was good, and Jim had his father send him his rod and accoutrements.
In September the Battalion split into bivouac camps with the three companies in different places, as they would be while in combat. Jim was also given duties with two other battalions. As a result, Jim spent four hours every day in a truck, driving from one camp to another at the speed limit of 25 mph. Actually, he wasn’t doing the driving. He was assigned a driver, W.S. Fletcher, an 18 year old from the hills and hollers of eastern Kentucky. Jim and “Fletch” hit it off despite their vastly different backgrounds, and would be together until the end of the war.
Jim wrote his parents regularly during this period, and I include excerpts from those letters in the opening chapter of my book. On September 12 he wrote the following.
I am gaining a good deal of valuable experience in a lot of ways. For instance, I would not be scared to go into general practice now. My work here is very like it in a lot of ways. The past two weeks I have had the medical care of 3 battaions . . .
And on October 27, as their training ended and they awaited orders for Europe, Jim wrote his father the following.
. . . if I have to be in the Army, my present job is about the best I could have. If one has to be in, I think the place to be is with troops. There is an amazing amount of independence and responsibility in my job . . .
Soon after, the 75th Division headed northeast to Camp Shanks on the Hudson River about an hour north of New York City to await their shipment across the Atlantic. Jim was able to see my mother one last time, meeting her at his parents’ apartment in the city for a short night. When he left her at 5 am to return to Camp Shanks, it would be the last time he saw her for the next 20 months.