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Greek / American Operational Group Office of Strategic Services (OSS)
Memoirs of World War 2

North Africa and Italy

The Good Life of Rear Echelon Soldiers

Camp Huckstep had excellent food, refreshments, and fine living quarters. We settled in and continued our training for a couple of weeks, including maneuvers in the sand dunes. One day Captain Houlihan had the trucks drive us to a secluded area in the desert where there were no landmarks; we had to find our way back to camp with our compasses. We imagined how difficult it would have been without our experience and training. It would be hell to be lost in the desert. While returning to camp the maneuver reminded me of those great movies of the 1930s, Gunga Din and Beau Geste.

During this maneuver we shed the black boots we wore in Charleston and were issued the new combat boots with the side buckle. They were much more comfortable. We had one pair of the excellent jump boots, but we only wore them when we were on leave, during parachute training, and when we parachuted into Greece.

The training of the OG was finalized in Egypt. We had one year of extensive training that would eventually be a huge plus when we went into combat. A few years later, I was dismayed when young American soldiers and marines were sent to Korea with just a few weeks of training.

Camp Huckstep was the first of many American camps that our unit passed through in noncombat areas. GIs who were stationed in these camps, especially in the European Theater, were very fortunate. They had good food and fine facilities and were able to visit a nearby city and fraternize with the "natives." The American soldier had terrific "working conditions" in non-combat areas. In Naples I saw first hand how high-ranking army officers lived like royalty in non combat areas.

The Unit is Split Up

We received our orders to leave Huckstep. Sadly our unit was once again split up. Three of the groups (Groups 1, 2, and 5) were sent to Haifa for parachute training then flown to Brindisi, Italy. These three groups at different times in the spring of 1944 left by LCI from Brindisi and landed behind German lines in northern Greece. We wished each other good luck, not realizing that we would not meet again until November 1944.

Groups 3, 4, and 6 were sent to Alexandria where we embarked onto a British troop ship, the HMS Stratfordshire that transported us to Taranto, Italy. The British troop ship would be an extraordinary experience.

HMS Stratfordshire

We had hoped to receive a pass to visit Alexandria, but we were shuttled immediately onto HMS Stratfordshire. The only significant thing about the ship was its elegant name. We had been told British ships, compared to American or Scandinavian ships, had poor food and terrible hygiene. We were not disappointed.

The Greek/USOG was the only American unit on the Stratfordshire. Before WW2 the Stratfordshire was a cruise ship. Cruise ships were mobilized by the armed services of both the Allies and the Axis and were utilized as troop ships. Our port of debarkation was Taranto, Italy. Fortunately, the trip from Alexandria to Taranto lasted only three days. In my army career I spent many days on troop ships; the Stratfordshire was the worst experience I had. We were bunked near the bow of the ship below the watermark. Our "hold" had tables for our meals, card playing, and letters to be mailed when we landed in Taranto. We were issued hammocks that we would hang on the bulkhead after the afternoon meal. A few of our men never left their hammock during the whole trip. The ship had an awful roll and most of us became very seasick. The latrine, as on the USS Pierre L'Enfant, was above our living quarters. The ship was filthy and there was little maintenance. We were served two meals a day: in mid morning codfish, bread, and tea; and in mid afternoon mutton, bread, and tea. After our first meal we stood in line to clean our mess kits which were very greasy from the codfish. When we approached the cleaning pot, unlike the American ships that always had hot water, we cleaned our utensils in a large wooden vat filled with saltwater. After the first experience, many of us used our hot tea to clean our mess kits. Fortunately I had a few cans of fruit in my duffel bag and shared them with my buddies. Troop ships rarely have navy escorts because they can outrun a submarine, but they are at the mercy of air raids. We were worried that the Luftwaffe would discover us; the Nazi airbases in southern Italy were in close proximity, but once again we were fortunate that the Nazis did not locate our ship. At that time the Luftwaffe probably did not have the luxury to seek out individual ships.

A sidelight was the continual dice games on troop ships. Dice games on American troop ships would begin immediately after embarkation and end at debarkation. A GI blanket would be laid out on the floor, usually in the latrine, and a soldier would usually bank the crap game. A few GIs made a big hit and returned home with a large nest egg. Our unit received regular pay; in addition we received another $50 a month, a substantial amount of money in those days. Paratroopers, commandos, and submariners all received extra pay for hazardous duty. The British pay was meager and they were mesmerized with the wild betting of the Americans. I recall how fascinated members of the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG) were with the Americans and their dice games. We gambled with Egyptian pounds; at that particular time the rate was $4.80 per Egyptian pound. Money would fly in from the GIs to place a bet, and the British could not get over how the Americans trusted each other. They would holler out look at those blokes, they fling all that money on the blanket and they know who made the bet. One pound was a month's pay for the British. Later in Yugoslavia we met up with the LRDG and discovered that theirs was an elite British outfit that almost captured the Desert Fox, General Rommel, in the African campaign. The LRDG were the first of the Allied Special Forces, as we call them today.

Deep Chasm between Officers and Enlisted Men

One of the American armed forces' on-going secrets was the disparity between the officers and enlisted men on navy ships. While enlisted men were cramped in holds three and four decks below the main deck, officers were housed on or above the main deck in two- or four-man cabins with ample space to sleep and, depending on the troop ship, extra space for desks, typewriters etc. They dined in spacious rooms with chairs and tables with white tablecloths, silverware, and cloth napkins, and were waited on by Filipino and Black navy enlisted men.

The gap between British officers and enlisted men was even larger. The officers on this once beautiful luxury liner were housed in its former first class facilities.

A year later, going overseas the second time as veterans of many battles, we were much bolder and brasher than in our rookie days. On the troop ship General Callan sailing from San Pedro to Calcutta in terrible heat, once a day for one hour the officers had fresh water for showers. The enlisted men had saltwater showers that dripped on us like syrup. On board were a group of Chinese officers returning to China from training in the States. We located their showers and, wrapped only in towels, we would occasionally join the Chinese officers in their shower room. I am certain the Chinese knew we were not officers but they were probably uneasy or too intimidated to report us to the American Navy officers. The officers' dining area was on the deck above the showers. One day we sneaked onto the dining deck and peered through the huge windows into the officers' dining area. We were shocked and pissed to observe how elegantly the officers dined. The officers ignored the enlisted men who were from steerage peering through the windows like wild animals.

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