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Bill Moomey was Carl’s Closest WW II Army Buddy

February 26, 2013

Bill Moomey’s Account of 1944-5, including the SS Leopoldville sinking.  

[ Bonde’s WW II era experience closely paralleled Bill’s.  They were almost exactly the same age, both born in September 1923.  After their basic trainings and their separate brief college experiences in ASTP (see below), they trained in the deep South with the 66th army division, shipped to England, then in answer to Nazi aggression late in the war, to France.  Of course Bill survived the U-Boat.]

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I had heard about a program called ASTP (Army Specialized Training Program). If your Army IQ test score was high enough you could apply, which I did.  I went before a committee of officers, and they approved my application and sent me to the University of Nebraska Ag Campus which was a staging area for this program.  We were billeted in the large building at the Northwest corner of the mall or quadrangle or whatever you call that area.  I don’t remember what they called that building, but think I would know if I heard the name.  We also ate there.  We did close order drill, and also went to refresher classes to start our minds thinking about school instead of killing.  The average stay there was about three weeks and then you shipped out to a college somewhere in the United States, like University of Iowa, or Missouri, or Connecticut, or even the University of Nebraska.  I lucked out and was assigned to the downtown campus in Lincoln.

            The U had just completed the new Field House at the North end of the stadium, but had not ben able to use it for athletics yet.  While there we lived in that Field House.  Note that both ends of the stadium were open.  They had not done any seat construction on the ends by then.  On a cold winter day the wind really whipped through there.  Some of the guys lived at Love Memorial Library which was also brand new and had not been used by the university for a library yet.

            We ate at the Student Union in the West end of the building.  During the day when we were on duty we marched in formation to and from meals, and classes.  Each one in our unit had the same classes and same teachers.  We had study halls at night, and those were in the Law building part of the time and military science building part of the time.  Whenever we went anywhere including study hall at night we marched in formation and a cadet leader was appointed for every group.  There was probably twenty or twenty five in each group.

            The purpose of ASTP was to make engineers out of us in two years.  At the end of that time we were to get a commission and assignment to an engineering outfit.  We didn’t take any of the unnecessary courses.  It was math, physics, chemistry, etc.  Only the basic engineering studies.  At the end of three months a lot of our friends flunked out.  They were shipped out to regular outfits and and within a couple of weeks they were writing to us and telling about getting a mail clerk job which was a corporal, supply sergeants, and all sorts of good easy positions.

            The rumor mill was working of course, and we heard stories of how this program was not going to last, so we all tried to flunk out the second three months.  Rumor was right on the nose.  At the end of six months the program was thrown out and we all went to the infantry together.

            The Air Corps Cadet program also gave up their University program and so a whole bunch of ASTP Cadets and Air Corps Cadets from Universities all over the country hit the infantry divisions to bring the up to strength.

            Cousin Dick Black was an Air Corps Cadet at Clemson, and two weeks before he was to transfer to pre-flight school he also was sent from school to the infantry.  He didn’t go to the 66th but there were many like him that did  General Eisenhower had said that he needed infantry replacements more than he needed pilots or engineers.  As a result ASTP and Air Cadets were sacrificed.  If you had made pre-flight school you were safe.  There were certainly a lot of sad people around the country after that move.

            Many of at U of N were assigned to the 66th division at Camp Robinson located just North of Little Rock Ark.  The 66th had just come off of maneuvers.  They had been out in the field for three weeks playing war games and living in tents and they were rough and tough and gruff.  They didn’t take kindly to a bunch of guys fresh out of college.  Not to brag—but the general IQ of the infantry was greatly enhanced at that time.  Training manuals and weapons manuals were written at fifth grade level.

            When we first got to Robinson there were probably fifty or sixty of us timid souls that met up with people like we had never been in contact with before.  There was an Indian named Pat Cuny from South Dakota.  Turned out to be a real nice halfway intelligent guy and knew the ropes of fighting.  He was a squad leader.  There was an Italian from Pennsylvania that they called Dago.  He talked a lot and was funny after you got to know him.  Then there was another kid from New York City that had spent a couple of years in a Bunde youth group that Hitler was managing to influence because the Nazi party was not outlawed in this country.  The Mess Sgt. was also an Italian by the name of Lido Puccinelli.  He was connected to a casino in Elko NV. As a civilian.  I don’t know if he was a dealer, or owner or what but that was his thing before coming into the Army  He eventually became our Machine Gun Section Sgt.

            In the Infantry rifle company at that time there was a headquarters section, three rifle platoons, and a weapons platoon.  The headquarters platoon was rather small and was made up of people to serve the Company Commander, such as First Sgt., Co. runner, Co. Radioman, Jeep driver, Mess Sgt and Cooks, Supply Sgt., Co. Clerk, mail clerk and that sort of personnel.

            Rifle platoon had 3 squads  Each squad had twelve men including Squad leader and assistant squad leader  The squad leaders were Staff Sgts with three stripes up and 1 rocker.  Ass’t squad leaders were Buck Sgts.  With three stripes up and none down.  There was also a Platoon Sgt with three stripes up and two down.

            The weapons platoon consisted of three mortar squads of five men each and two machine gun squads of five men each.  These squad leaders were Buck Sgts.  The mortar section leader and the machine gun section leader were Staffs and then we also had a platoon Sgt.

            The officers were a captain for company commander, a First Lieutenant as executive officer (second in command) and either First or Second Lieutenants as platoon Leaders.  I am sure this is information you always wanted to know but didn’t know where to find out.

            At any rate, when we got to Robinson they separated us new guys from the rest of the company for training purposes, because we essentially had to do basic training over again and they had to get us conditioned physically.  That was tough but I wish I was in that kind of condition today.

After three weeks in Robinson we shipped out by train (including Pullmans) for Camp Rucker which is near Dothan, AL.  That is Army Beattie’s hometown.

            While in Rucker we did the usual disciplinary training such as close order drill, Fifteen mile hikes, twenty five mile hikes nine mile speed hikes, rifle range for target practice and training in the proper use of weapons, KP, guard duty which is to be considered a privilege and an honor not a duty, and an occasional pass or furlough.  We also spent a lot of time on bivouac or if you prefer you can call it maneuvers, or war games.  We would spend anywhere from three days to three weeks out in the field playing war games.  While we were on bivouac we slept in tents, used slit trenches for latrines, and dug foxholes for practice, and of course filled them up when we left.

            If you are in the infantry you carry a full field pack on your back.  This consisted of a shelter half, one blanket, mess kit, and an entrenching tool of some kind.  Either a small shovel or a pick.  Mine was a shovel.  In fact we have a shovel like that in the garage that Mom won by answering some kind of contest on TV.  Sometimes you also included C-rations for one day and most of us carried an extra pair of socks.  All of this stuff was rolled up tightly in the shelter half and then bound into the knapsack, which had shoulder straps When you were moving from one spot to another you had on the field pack and a rifle belt full of ammunition.  The rifle belt had metal eyelets that you could hook other things into the belt for carrying.  You always ad a first aid kit hooked on, which was nothing more than a compress to put on wounds.  Also your canteen, bayonet, and trench knife.  After you get all of that equipment strapped on then you sling an M-1 rifle on your shoulder.  Often times the weapons platoon boys also had a pistol.  Occasionally we had to carry the machine guns which were quite heavy.

            When I think back on that time I don’t know how we did it, except for the condition we were in physically.  You can see why they don’t want anyone but young men for that job.  If you were thirty years old you were an old man.

            When you stopped to pitch camp for overnight two guys would each pair up and each would provide a shelter half.  You would fasten them together and that would become your tent for two men.

            While we were in Camp Rucker we stood reveille every morning and retreat every night.  After reveille it was chow and then off to some kind of drill, or training movie, or hike of some kind.  The Camp Commander at Rucker was not part of our outfit and he didn’t think we should have to take 25 mile hikes, so he issued an order that they could not make us do 25 miles all in one day.  Don’t worry, our high command put us through regular drills in the morning, gave us a little time off till 4:00 or 5:00 and then we went on a 25 mile hike until next morning.  That way it was in two different days, since we passed through midnight.

            When we stood retreat the weapons had to be just so-so.  Because of the proximity to the coast the humidity was high.  After sitting in the rifle racks all night the guns were red with rust, so it was a constant chore to keep the brass happy, but we survived.

            In November 1944 we went to Camp Shanks near New York City.  That was called a Port of Embarkation.  I was happy to be going to Europe instead of the South Pacific, but that was the only thing good about it in my mind.  We did get some passes while there.  One night some of us went into the City and went to a Nightclub.  I don’t remember the name of the club but they had all black entertainers.  We saw the Ink Spots, Ella Fitzgerald, and a guy by the name of Peg Leg Bates.  He was a one legged tap dancer because he had a white peg leg.  One other night we were in Times Square on election night.  What a mass of people.  You absolutely could not move for a while, except when the crowd moved you were forced to move with them.  That is about all I remember about NYC.  We weren’t there long.

            On Nov. 15 1944 we shipped out on a converted luxury line named the George Washington.  It had been used as a luxury liner for overseas transportation to Europe because planes were yet to come on the scene  They converted it to a troopship and I have no idea how many men were on board, but I know a full division of 15,000 soldiers from the 66th were.

            We were unhappy to find out that Co E was going to be a guard company on the way to England.  We had certain places that we were stationed on the ship.  It turned out to be a good deal, because if you were not in a guard company you had to continue with some kind of training.  Classes, calisthenics, etc.  We also had galley privileges.  We were special people at chow time, and we could go get a sandwich and coffee at the end of our shift if we wanted something to eat.

            This was when I had my first experience with a gay person.  I was stationed on one end of the passageway leading to crew’s quarters and a guy by the name of Vester was on the other end.  The crew was not Navy.  I think they were Merchant Marine sailors.  At least they were not part of the military as far as I know.

            Any way one of the stewards took a liking to Vester and he brought him pies, and cakes and all sorts of goodies.  Then Vester would give me the high sign and we would feast.  Vester was glad to get that trip over with.

            If I remember correctly we were on the high seas eleven days.  I see in another account that I wrote I said it was thirteen or fourteen days, so whatever it was we made it to England.  We were in convoy and we were also zig-zagging as a defensive measure, so it took awhile to get there.  We landed in Weymouth England then went to a camp near Dorchester.

            While at that camp we continued training out in the countryside as well as standing inspection.  Not long before we shipped out from Rucker the weapons platoon got a new platoon leader, fresh out of West Point by the name of McWilliams.  Of course we were perplexed because he was a West Pointer.  He turned out to be the best officer we ever had.  Most of our officers were ROTC or ninety day wonders.  I’ll take a West Pointer any day.  We also got a new regimental commander just as we were leaving the States.  He was a bird Colonel also out of West Point.  He had not seen his troops so we had the inspection routine to go through and our Company Commander Captain Penland was scared silly.  Anyway we had the regimental commander, and his Aides, the Battalion Commander and his Aides and Company Commander looking us over.  The Colonel wasn’t exactly happy with the other platoons in the company, but when they got to the weapons platoon McWilliams called us to attention from Parade rest and every heel clicked as one.  McWilliams reported to him, as was the routine.  Sharp, snappy, and loud enough to be heard across the whole expanse of the company formation.  The Colonel looked at him asked him where he was from and McWilliams told him West Point.  The Colonel turned around to Capt. Penland and told him to get the rest of his Company up to the standards of this platoon.  That night the fourth platoon went on pass and the rest of the Company had a G I Party.

            While in Dorchester that night we came across a guy with a large two wheel cart that he could push around.  (You have seen pictures of them).  He was vending the famous fish and chips that we had heard so much about.  Guess what, the fish tasted like fish and the chips tasted like French fries, and I am not fond of either one.  At the Pub we tried the dark beer which is supposed to be something special.  You know, I never did like beer, and I didn’t like that either.

            While stationed at the camp near Dorchester I got to go to London on a three day pass.  We saw St Paul’s Cathedral, Westminster Abby, Tower of London and Madam Tussaud’s Wax Museum.  I am sure there were other things, but that is what I remember.  We didn’t get to see Buckingham Palace or the changing of the guard.

            As we were going into the Wax Museum there was a Bobbi (Police) standing on a stairway landing, so I went up to ask him directions.  Guess What!! He was a wax dummy.  We finally figured out where to go and upstairs in this one large room there was a desk sitting close to the doorway with a wax dummy sitting there as if reading a book.  Also there was a sign in a basket telling you how much money to put into the basket to get the guide pamphlet.  I went over and put the money in the basket and picked up the guide book, and she said thank you.  She wasn’t a wax dummy after all.  The figures were so real it was amazing, even down to the hair on the backs of the fingers.

            The next day after returning to camp I had KP (Kitchen Police).  About 1:30 or 2:00 that afternoon the Charge of Quarters came down to the Kitchen and told us to get back to the barracks and pack up to ship out.  I was washing some pots and pans and he said to leave them as they are.  Drop everything and get back to the barracks.  SO we did.  We hurried up to get back to the Company so we could wait.  Typical Army routine.

We finally loaded up all of our equipment on our backs and marched down to the train station in Dorchester.  I do not recall what time of day or night this happened, but it was a long haul.  Our train took us to Southampton where we again trudged on foot to the pier where ships were waiting to take us to France.  There was a Red Cross truck there with American girls serving coffee and donuts to the troops.  That really hit the spot.  It was the day before Christmas.  For some reason which seems to be unknown Co. E was divided.  Headquarters platoon, and first and second platoon boarded one ship and the third platoon and weapons platoon boarded the other ship that was in dock.  It was a Belgium owned vessel that had been a small luxury liner that was converted to a troopship.  It had a Belgian crew (most of the sailors or crew members were black natives from the Belgian Congo I am told.)  The officers were white men from Belgium.  I think the language was probably French.  The Army Cadre on board, that cooked the meals and looked after the troops were English.

            We took our duffel bags and weapons to our assigned quarters.  Our quarters were well below the water line in a hold a little past midship toward the aft side of the ship.  After dropping off our equipment we went back up to the main deck for a boat drill.  Each group had a particular place to go or as they called it a boat station.  Then it was free time and we were on our own.  I don’t recall what I did right after that.  I remember trying to get comfortable in a hammock.  Up to now we had always had built in bunks that were stationary and solid, but this whip had hammocks that had to be conquered.

            Instead of going to the galley or mess hall to eat we sent two representatives to pick up chow for eight to twelve people.  When they returned it did not smell good nor did it taste good.  I was prepared with a box of Hershey candy bars in my duffel bag so I skipped chow.

            Two guys Tom Bowles and Tony Lemos were almost directly under my hammock doing a great job being sea sick.  My stomach began to be a little queasy after listening to those guys do their vomiting so I decided to go up on deck and get some fresh air.

            As I was going up the stairs I met my squad leader, Irvin Weaver, coming down.  He said it was pretty cold up on deck so he was going after his overcoat.  He told me that some of the guys were up on boat deck which was the very top deck of the ship.  He told me where they were up there and would meet me there in a few minutes.  [I wonder why I didn’t wait for him or even go back with to get his coat.  (No, I really don’t wonder that at all.  I just praise the Lord and give him all of the credit.)]

            After my short visit with Weaver I went on up to the boat deck and found some of the guys.  Bill Loughborough, who was from Mich. At that time and now in Santa Rosa CA., George Miller came from back East somewhere and now in Conn.  Al Salata from New York City and living in Florida.  Ole Jensen, a Dane from somewhere and now is deceased.  Hank Andersen from Omaha and now living on an island in Puget Sound.  Jack Yarbrough from Atlanta GA and is still there.  All of these guys were in the Mortar Section of the 4th Platoon.  I was the only machine gunner in the group.  These guys were sitting on benches sort of like park benches.  I had just found them and almost immediately Ole decided to get sea sick.  He went t the rail of the ship a little aft of where we were and upchucked.  As he was coming back to the group there was a loud explosion and debris flying in the air at approximately where Ole let go of his dinner.  First remarks were “Ole you have more power than I thought.”  Second remarks were I wonder what hit us.  About that time we noticed three British Destroyers huddled up and going around in a circle.  Of course everyone assumed they were chasing a German U-Boat.  Some one else suggested we hit a mine because of the metallic sound of the explosion.  Then someone else said it wasn’t likely to be a mine in the English Channel where Allied shipping was prevalent and in control of the sea.

            As we were deliberating about what had happened we began to secure our life jackets and decided we should go to our boat station.  We were up on boat deck on the starboard side of the ship and also forward part of the deck.  Our boat station was at least two decks down on the Port side and aft so in effect we were in the opposite corner of where we were supposed to be and two decks above.  We went down to the correct deck and tried to get to our boat station but there was a swarm of men from rail to cabin coming toward us and there was no way we could get to our designated spot, so we just stayed where we were.  The main deck was below us yet and we stood on the forward, starboard corner of our deck looking down on hundreds of men standing shoulder to shoulder below us and extending forward to the bow of the ship which was possibly 100 feet from where we were.

            All of this activity started at dusk, probably around six o’clock.  By this time it was dark and so they turned on the lights which was a no-no in time of war.  What a perfect target if there were more subs or enemy planes around.  Luckily there weren’t.  Since it was Christmas Eve someone started singing Christmas carols and everyone joined in.  It was kind of nice.  Eventually a British destroyer pulled up along the starboard side.  They were able to partially tie up to the Leopoldville, however the sea was pretty rough and high waves made the two ships bob about as corks in a bathtub.  They would come together and then the waves would separate them.  Sometimes when they came together they would do so with a bang.  Occasionally they would not touch.  The destroyer was not as tall as the troopship so we were looking down on them.  There were British Officers on the destroyer shouting directions.  “Climb atop that rail there and when I holler JUMP, give it all you have.  So we lined up and when it was your turn you climbed atop the rail and when they hollered JUMP a whole wave of soldiers were instantly in the air momentarily.  Of course the destroyer was bobbing up as we hit the deck and everyone went sprawling.  Then it was a hustle to get out of the way of the next wave of men.  T was possibly a fifteen or twenty foot drop to the destroyer and when you hit the deck it was quite a blow.  Some were injured.  I was lucky.  I had a sore heel for about two weeks.  Some of the men wouldn’t jump because of fear and some said they haven’t given the abandon ship order so why risk it now.  Some of the jumpers didn’t time it right or didn’t hear the order to jump or for some reason didn’t make it to the destroyer.  They fell in between the two ships and into the water or in some cases were smashed between the two ships.  I had on my steel helmet and when I hit the deck of the destroyer my liner stayed on my head but the helmet went flying.  I think it went into the drink.

            After landing on the destroyer they herded us down to the galley.  Some said they had soup, some said they had pie.  I had a part of a cup of coffee that hit the spot as it had been quite chilly on the open deck.

            We asked the Brits what would happen.  We wondered why they didn’t tow us into port.  They said because of Union agreements, or Port agreements, or some kind of agreements they had to let some tugs or tow ships from Cherbourg Harbor come out after the Leopoldville.

            I have no idea how long it was but eventually the HMS Brilliant went into Cherbourg and dumped us out on the pier.  We were wandering around like lost children not knowing what to do.  Finally we heard someone shouting, “rendezvous by company.”  We got E Company together in one spot.  I am not sure, but I think Jim Grunewald from our platoon joined us at this point, so now we are eight.  Al Salata was the highest ranking non-com in the bunch, as a Staff Sgt.  I know that our Platoon Leader Lt. McWilliams was on the ship but he didn’t show up at this time.

            As we were standing there waiting for other survivors to show up some second looey came by and asked who we were.  He was lost.  He saw a large stack of K-rations in case lots on the dock behind us.  He said, I have no idea when or where we are going, but I know if I were you guys I would leave here with food, and pointed to the stack behind us.  Several of us picked up a case of these rations and took them with us and no one objected.

            I should tell you that K-Rations come in breakfast, lunch, and dinner.  They were packaged in a box about 4”x8”x2”.  Breakfast had a packet of Nescafe.  I don’t think instant coffee other that that had come upon the scene yet.  There was a package of crackers similar to the salad wafers served with salad today, a can of scrambled eggs and ham, a little package of toilet paper, and a package of three cigarettes.  Lunch consisted of the crackers again, a can of cheese, a packet of orange powder for drink, and the supper ration had the crackers beef bouillon for the drink and potted ham, and I am sure that there were some other things in these rations that I don’t recall at the moment.  For the most part they were very tasty and sufficient in spite of all the griping.  They were cold of course.  However, GIs become quite ingenious and would fend for themselves in a remarkable way.

            When we left the docks were taken to a large warehouse area where they gave us blankets and pillows and instructed us to find a spot and stay together and watch for friends.  We ended up at the far end of the building and took turns going back to the entrance whenever a new bunch of survivors came in.  It was very disappointing that none of our group showed up.  Of course you think maybe they were in the hospital, or went to a different place because it was getting pretty crowded where we were.  This went on all night.

            I don’t recall what happened the next day except that in the evening we went to a Port Battalion which was all black for Christmas dinner.  They loaned us mess kits and silver after they had eaten and we had a regular Christmas dinner.  The turkey was fixed ala king in the gravy and put over mashed potatoes, and there was cranberry sauce, and bread and butter and I suppose some kind of a vegetable.  When I stop to think about it that was a pretty amazing feat to serve a nice Christmas dinner to about 800 or 900 unexpected guests.  I have no idea how many of there were but it was a bunch.

            We were then taken to a camp; that had been a fairgrounds or race track.  It had a grandstand the U.S. Army had erected semi-permanent shelter using squad tents.  A squad tent would hold up to twelve people and our eight guys from E Company were assigned a squad tent.  It had wood or some sort of hard stiff material from the ground up about four or maybe six feet.  My memory about that is pretty fuzzy.  We had a little government issue pot bellied stove in the middle for warmth.  You burned whatever you could find for fuel.  The coast of France is cold in the winter time just like it is here in Nebraska.  They had a kitchen and dining hall over in the grandstand.  Having been under severe discipline for so long we sort of took advantage of the sudden lack of discipline.  We slept in every morning and when we got around to it we would break out a breakfast ration and heat it up in mess kits on the pot bellied….

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One Comment
  1. Brian permalink

    I had the pleasure of knowing Jack Yarbrough, mentioned above. Several years ago, Jack and I had a long talk about the events on the Leopoldville and he mentioned the fact that a group of men went up on deck just before the torpedo hit. His version matches this one almost exactly.

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