Matthew 14:6

And ye shall hear of wars and rumours of wars: see that ye be not troubled: for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet.
Matthew 24:6 KJV

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Interview with WWII U.S. Army Veteran, John Bush

I had the pleasure yesterday of interviewing my friend, John Bush, a combat veteran of World War II. There are very few veterans of this war still living. Even though his body is starting to fail him, John’s mind is still sharp and he was able to recall and share several stories from his service as a combat warrior in the European Theater.

A little about John Bush:

John was born almost ninety-four years ago in West Virginia, where he spent his early years on a farm. His mother died when he was seven, and his father when he was twelve. After that, he went to live first with in-laws of his older brother, then later an aunt. He ended up in Ohio.

John never went to college, but, as he told me, that didn’t mean he was stupid. At an early age, he developed an aptitude for working on all things mechanical. He claimed his father would have had his farm paid off before he died if he had not kept buying cars for John’s older brothers. They were used cars, but still drained the family finances. When one car would break, it would get parked and his father would buy another.

By the time both of his older brothers left home, the farm had a building big enough to hold six cars, and there were six broken cars inside. John went to his father and said he wanted to try to fix the cars. (Keep in mind he was twelve when his father died.) His father told him, “You’ve never been trained as a mechanic.” John replied, “No, but I can read.” John reminded his father they had a friend who owned a book with photos that told how to work on cars. John borrowed the book, gathered what tools the family owned, and began to repair the cars. One had a coil that had come loose. It was an easy fix. Later John worked as a truck driver, a job that included a certain amount of mechanical work.

The United States had already entered the Second World War when John graduated from high school in 1942. He did not immediately enlist in the military. Instead, he received a deferment so he could work the evening shift in a defense plant tooling mounts for 90mm anti-aircraft guns. However, deferments needed to be renewed every three months. His job was in Cleveland, Ohio, and the draft board he was subject to was in West Virginia. Every time the draft board contacted him, he was required to report in person to file his deferment, This necessitated bus trips there and back. Travel during the war was challenging, with buses often having standing room only.

There came a point where John decided to not go back to file the deferment. His supervisor at the plant encouraged him to do so, claiming John turned out twelve pieces a night, all of which tested perfectly, whereas the people on the day crew could only turn out half of what he did, and many pieces failed quality control. He told his boss he was not any more special than anyone else, so if he was drafted, he would serve.
John Bush

John was drafted and entered into service March 29, 1943. He was assigned to the 66th Infantry Division, Reconnaissance Troop, Mechanized.

The following is from the history of the 66th Infantry Division as found in Wikipedia:

The 66th Infantry Division was a unit of the United States Army during World War II. Activated April 15, 1943, the division trained at Camp Blanding, Florida (John Bush recalls going there for training, also he spent time in North Carolina), and was later transferred to Camp Robinson, Arkansas and then later to Camp Rucker, Alabama before being shipped overseas to England on November 26, 1944. Commanded by Maj. Gen. H. F. Kramer, the 66th Infantry Division’s main role in World War II was containing and eliminating the remaining pockets of German soldiers in Northern France.

John’s recollections:

He, along with 9,000 other soldiers, left New York harbor at night on board a big English ship as part of a large convoy. The ships in the convoy changed position constantly. John said the men would rise each morning to see which ships they could see from theirs. It changed from day to day.

The convoy sailed into Southampton on the south coast of England, across the channel from Cherbourg. Their first task there was to clean up their equipment which had been coated to protect it on the ocean crossing.

Landing Ship, Tanks (LSTs)

John and his regiment left France on Christmas day, 1944. He recalls about seven LSTs (Landing Ship, Tanks) crossing the channel. Away from land, the division lost about 800 men due to a German U-boat torpedoing one of the ships and sinking it. John recalls seeing the shadow of a U-boat go under the ship upon which he was being transported. He hurriedly told captain to take evasive action, which he did. He watched as the torpedo barely missed the ship on which he was being transported.

John recalls that from Cherbourg, the headquarters unit to which he had been assigned moved to a position south of the cities still held by the Germans.

The following is from the history of the 66th Infantry Division as found in Wikipedia:

Three regiments of the 66th Infantry Division arrived in Dorchester, England on November 26, 1944, and the rest of the Division joined them on December 12, 1944. They trained and prepared for deployment until December 24, 1944, then transferred to Southampton before crossing the English Channel to Cherbourg, France. Two Belgian transport vessels, the Cheshire and Leopoldville  carried the 66th across the English Channel. However, only 5 miles from the port of Cherbourg, the Leopoldville was torpedoed by a German U-Boat and sunk, taking the lives of 14 officers and 748 enlisted soldiers. The U.S. Navy later announced the sinking of the Leopoldville to be the second-largest loss of life from the sinking of a troop transport ship in the entire European Theater.

Map courtesy of 40,000 Black Panthers of the 66th Division
The assignment given to the 66th division on December 29, 1944 was to take over for the 94th and control the Brittany-Loire area, and collaborate with French forces as well. The 66th harassed German installations, limited objective attacks, and running reconnaissance missions to gather intelligence. The use of artillery shelling on many German positions also played a major part in the advancement of the 66th through the region. In total, there were about 100,000 German soldiers that remained in the ports of Lorient, St. Nazaire, Bordeaux and La Rochelle while the rest of the German front moved east. Although this nest of Germans that remained in the coastal cities of western France were separated, they had access to the ocean. Once St. Nazaire was captured, the Americans found concrete bunkers for U-boats which continued to harass Allied shipping. Also, until the end, the Germans were able to get supplies into those cities by ship.

John told me he never did figure out how the Army decided to assign its soldiers. It was no secret that he had been a truck driver and a mechanic. However, instead of training him to be an Army mechanic or putting him in the motor pool, they assigned him to the kitchen. His duties, as listed on his Honorable Discharge, were the following:

COOK: Prepared and cooked in company and consolidated mess halls, prepared and cooked for 250 to 1,000 men. Cooked soups, meats, and vegetables, baked pies, cakes, and pastries. Used a master menu in preparing meals. Was responsible for the sanitation of the kitchen and the cleanliness of cooking and eating utensils. Served as mess sergeant for 3 months.

Because of his responsibilities, John was assigned to headquarters. However, John assured me he was not stuck in the kitchen the entire twenty months he served overseas. The Army has a way of “temporarily reassigning” its personnel when it wants something done.

The word got around to both the men and the officers that he understood engines. When the motor pool ran into trouble, they called him over to help them fix things.

Also, during his training, John proved he excelled at firing a 50 caliber gun. He was assigned as the second machine gunner for headquarters. When the man who was assigned as the first machine gunner was gone, John moved up. He had occasions when he shot at airplanes, but said he was glad he had not been assigned to the front line. However, he often was temporarily assigned to carry out recon missions.

John became fairly close to his superior officer, Captain Elliott, who had come from Kentucky where he was involved in breeding and training horses for racing. At one point after arriving in France, a large truck was stuck in the loose beach sand. Captain Elliott called John over and asked if he could get it unstuck. John told him, sure, and proceeded to put the truck in four-wheel drive and got it on solid ground.

Another time, Captain Elliott was supervising a tank going up over a hill. The driver turned wrong, and the tank slid, then rolled to the bottom of the hill landing on it side. None of the soldiers inside were seriously hurt, but the captain went up to the driver and warned him he better not have ruined the tank. He made sure they understood he could get twenty new men easier than he could get one new tank.

The captain called John over and asked him, “Can you get this thing upright on its tracks?” John assured him he could, but he needed a six-track (two and a half ton truck) and every heavy chain the men could get their hands on. John instructed the men how to rig the tank to the truck. He climbed in the cab of the six-track, and he gunned the engine. The tank rolled back on its tracks.

Captain Elliott often visited John in the kitchen late at night to ask for a cup of coffee or a ham sandwich, which John provided. Knowing John was a good shot with a rifle, he also often asked John to grab his M-1 and go out with him when he walked the parameter on night patrol. One night a glint of something on the ground caught John’s eye, and he swung his arm back to stop the captain from walking forward. Then he pointed to the tripwire the captain had almost stepped on. John said the captain commented more than once, “It’s a shame my cook is the best rifleman in the outfit.” John said he would shrug and reply, “Well, when you grow up in the country shootin’ squirrels with a 22….”

Another of John’s duties, which was the mechanized part of his cooking job, I suppose, was to transport hot chow to the men near the front lines. For that assignment, he used a Ford Jeep (GP) which he kept in top running order. He said not all Jeeps were created equal, but the Fort Jeep he maintained easily drove at 80 miles per hour.

John recalls his closest brush with death in Europe came one time as he returned from delivering hot chow to the infantrymen assigned to the front lines. He was in his Ford Jeep when some Germans manning an 88 caught sight of him and started shelling him. The eighty-eight, as it was commonly known, was a German-made 88 mm anti-aircraft and anti-tank artillery gun widely used by the Germans, and feared by the Allies. Although John pushed that Jeep to its top 80mph speed, as the hits kept getting closer, he could tell the German gunners were zeroing in on him. He floored the accelerator in an effort to get over the crest of the hill he was driving up, but realized they had caught up to him when a shell exploded right behind the Jeep. He slammed on his brakes and skidded to a stop. As he hoped, the next shell overshot his position and exploded in front of him. He then gunned the engine and raced over hilltop, driving at top speed until the Germans couldn't see him anymore. At that point, the shelling stopped and he was able to finish his drive back in safety.

The following is from the history of the 66th Infantry Division as found in Wikipedia:

A heavy German attack near La Croix was repulsed on April 16, 1945 and several strongly fortified enemy positions were taken from April 19 to 29, 1945 in a series of counterattacks. These battles played a pivotal role in ending the Nazi occupation of Northern France. The remaining Nazi soldiers surrendered to 66th Infantry Division Officers and French officials in a small cafe near Cordemais on May 8, 1945.

Ordered to change to an occupational-oriented mission May 14, 1945, the 66th made a 700-mile trek into Germany where the Black Panthers occupied 2400 square miles of territory and the city of Koblenz. As a security force, the division was charged with establishment of a military government and control of all German affairs. Tasks included the discharging of prisoners of war, inventorying of ammunition and supplies, and organizing civilians.
John does not see himself in this photo taken in Marseilles, but he was there at the time, and he would have been doing this type of work.
John recalls going with the headquarters unit as it moved into Germany. They weren’t there long before they started south towards Marseilles, France. Although the war in Europe was over, the war in the Pacific had not ended.  John recalled there being around 100,000 men in Marseilles being readied to ship out to Pacific. He recalls the day the boats full of men crossing the canal starting yelling and cheering so loud they could be heard for miles. They had received the message the war in the Pacific had ended. Their ships were to head back to New York where the men would be discharged.

Although most of the men who enlisted in the 66th were sent home by the fall of 1945, John said he had not been in Europe long enough to be discharged earlier. He remained as part of the occupation forces in Marseilles, serving for a time as a military policeman. With his ability using a gun and his over six feet in height, the job probably suited him well.

John also recalls spending time in occupied Austria. One town featured a brewery on a mountain, but underneath the brewery was an airplane factory. Doors were built into the side of the mountain and camouflaged. When the doors were opened, an inside road four lanes wide allowed planes to leave when built.

John returned to the United States in the spring of 1946 and was honorably discharged on April 7, 1946.
66th Division shoulder patch & logo

A note about the black panther logo: The logo of the Black Panthers’ shoulder sleeve comes from Nicolas Viscardi, the comic book artist who was enlisted in the 66th Infantry Division. He served from 1943 to 1945, and earned two Purple Hearts for wounds suffered as a tank driver in the armored cavalry. He won a competition to design the patch, and subsequently created the iconic logo with the snarling panther which suggests power, aggressiveness and endurance. The shoulder sleeve insignia was approved on 26 August 1943.

John enjoyed telling me of his experiences while he served in World War II. He realizes he is one of the few left who remember that war and their experiences in it. One of his prized possessions is the book, 40,000 Black Panthers of the 66th Division. Like he told me, of all the men he kept in contact with over the years, he is the only one he knows of who is still living. The rest are gone.

Interview with John Bush
40,000 Black Panthers of the 66th Division