After basic training in the 821 EAB at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri from April to November 1952 we were moved to Wolters Air Force Base in Mineral Wells, Texas advanced engineer training until March 1953. We finished our advanced engineer training at Wolters Air Force Base.
Some great genius in the Military Air Sea Transport department realized they hadn't shipped any troops out of Galveston since the end of W.W. II. So in late March of 1953, our battalion was loaded onto chartered buses and driven to Galveston, Texas and onto a pier where they boarded a troop ship named the USS General Hann.
The ship made one stop at San Juan, Puerto Rico, where a group of Puerto Rican troops bound for Germany were loaded onto the ship. The ship sailed across the south Atlantic stopping first at France to let us off. The rest of that trip was very frustrating for an old southerner like me. Most of the Puerto Rican troops were black. For the next couple of weeks every time I said something to a black guy, expecting a soft southern drawl, I was inundated by a flood of Spanish.
When we got within sight of land near France, the sailors began shutting the waterproof doors below decks. When ask why, we were told it was because there were still a lot of mines in the harbor and sometime one floated free and was a hazard. As the ship approached France, that same Army genius decided that no soldiers had "went over the side" in France since World War II. After the ship anchored in the harbor at La Rochelle (near La Harve), the entire ship load of soldiers climbed down the landing nets hanging over the side of the ship. We stepped off the nets into "Ducks"(Landing craft) and were driven across the beach to a railroad siding where they were loaded into some French passenger train cars.
The train dumped us in the little town of Dreux (pronounced Drew, about 40 miles north of Paris) in the cold April wind at the (already closed for the night) depot about 11:00 PM. After a phone call and an hour or so wait we were picked up in some open top, cattle type, trailers pulled by 18 wheel truck rigs and driven through the cold night to the new air force base that consisted of about sixteen squad tents, a mess hall tent, headquarters tent and a very large open prairie.
The official objective of our SCARWAF unit was to assist in building a NATO Air Force base in France. Our first and only job assignment there however, was to build permanent living quarters along with mess halls, supply rooms and offices for ourselves. The French civilian contractors had the airport construction sewed up and no American troops worked on it.
My platoon was sent to Laon (lay-on) after the first few weeks, where we constructed a service club building and movie theater building at the Laon Air force base. Our next assignment was at Chateauroux where we assembled a prefab 10,000 barrel oil storage tank for the Chateauroux Air Force Base in the fall and winter of 1953. It was often 10 or 12 degrees F. at noon that winter. The tank was built of steel plates bolted together with three rows of bolts at each seam. There was a neoprene gasket between the plates to seal the seams. We would carry brooms to the work site every morning to sweep the snow off of the material. We had to work wearing gloves to keep the wrenches, washers, nuts and bolts from freezing to our fingers when we picked them up.
Back at Dreux the prefab buildings, that made up our quarters at the Dreux base were finished and heated by two fuel oil burning heaters. There was one heater near each end of the building sitting in a wooden box about 3 feet square and 6 inches deep. The box was full of sand and the heater sat on the sand. Outside each building near each end, there was a 55 gallon barrel of fuel oil on a high stand. A small rubber hose running from the drum, through the wall and across the floor brought the oil to the heater. During the winter, in early 1954 it was getting almost time for us to get discharged and we were all getting anxious to go. It was freezing cold that night when the fuel oil started a tiny drip in one of the sand boxes in the headquarters building.
Somehow the little puddle of fuel oil in the sand caught fire from the heater about 1:00 O'clock in the morning. The night CQ got a little bumfuzzled when he saw the little blaze. Instead of going outside and turning the oil off at the drum, he jerked the hose off the heater and started running for the door with the end of the hose in his hand. He reached the end of the hose before he reached the door. Then he decided he had run the wrong way, so he started toward the door at the other end of the building. He didn't reach that door but running back and forth with the hose squirting a big stream of fuel oil had pretty well covered the whole floor. The water was frozen in the fire truck, so everyone stood around and watched while the building burned to the ground along with every man's personnel record for the whole battalion.
In March of 1954, the men were trucked to Paris and loaded into a train to be taken to Bremerhaven, Germany. Of course, when we got to Germany, no one knew we were coming and we had no personnel records, so they didn't know exactly what to do with 400 men. After a day or two they started dividing us up to fill empty space on departing troop ships. I was in a group that was loaded on the USS General Patch and sailed back across the north Atlantic to New York.
After landing at New York City in the last part of March, the men were loaded directly into buses on the pier and taken to Camp Kilmer, New Jersey. At Camp Kilmer, it took about three hours for the personnel department to issue all of us from the south our travel pay and orders to report to Camp Chaffie in Fort Smith, Arkansas within three days. The trip looked like fun when he boarded the beautiful shiny streamline train. After about an hours ride westward he had to change trains in Pennsylvania and get on an old ordinary looking, but still comfortable train. Once again, in St. Louis, he had to change trains for Arkansas. If you remember any movies about the old west, we were there. The passenger cars were lined with painted center match lumber with coal burning heaters sitting in the middle of the aisles broke the spell. After three last days at Camp Chaffie in Ft. Smith, I was given an Honorable Discharge on my birthday, March 31, 1954.
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