" The following excerpts are 3 stories from the book"
DOING MY BIT TO GET INTO THE WAR
Texas National Guard, 144th Infantry
My first night in the Texas National Guard, I was issued a full field pack and a .30-caliber Enfield rifle, and fell out to march to the downtown railroad station to board a train for Louisiana Maneuvers. It was August 1940, and I was seventeen. We marched to a bagpipe band and changed steps a hundred times per block, trying to keep in step with the band. We marched past the Majestic Theater, which displayed the movie currently showing--All This and Heaven Too.
My buddy Howard White was the one who talked me into it. About a month earlier, he and I had been walking home from a Thursday evening Big Band dance at Kid Springs, where I’d got to dance with beautiful petite Betty Jane Mimms, who would one day beat Babe Zaharias for the Texas Women’s Open Golf Event. If you enjoyed dancing, as all of my friends and I did, you could dance for four hours to the music of Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Artie Shaw, and others for $3.00 a couple as the Big Bands came through Dallas. This often entailed "borrowing" my sister
Mary's jewelry to be hocked along with my Adamson High School letter sweater at Uncle Sam's Hock Shop in downtown Dallas on "Deep Elum" Street.
Howard and another friend, Pinky Wade, were already in the Guard. As we walked home from the dance, he told me how the Guard would put weight on me and I could play for the Leopards, the Adamson High football team, like he did. This was a point of great interest. I loved all sports, but my size of five feet, six inches and about ninety pounds kept me out of everything but soccer, track and boxing. While I could not run fast, I could run forever it appeared, so I’d become a miler. In time I would run a mile in 4:40 flat and take second place behind Jerry Thompson, an old Fort Worth track team mate. Even now, they still run the "Jerry Thompson Mile" at the Texas Relays every year.
Then there was the fact that I was always trying to prove myself. My brief amateur boxing career was a source of pride amongst my buddies, but I had never received support from home for any personal or team activity. I vividly recall leaving to ride the streetcar downtown to box in the Golden Gloves for the first time. I was almost shaking as I walked out the front door of our apartment. Lou, my step-mom said, "I'll bet they knock your head off." I gulped and thought, "You're probably right.” Several fights later, I read a little headline in the Dallas Morning News: "Bearden Fights in Finals." I walked around the house with a chest full of pride, one step closer to becoming a man.
But most of all, the money in the Guard sounded good. Howard had been promoted to sergeant squad leader, and was earning a considerable income. He assured me I would make about a dollar a day if I could get in on the Louisiana Maneuvers, which were coming up the following month.
This proposition meant I could double my current earnings from the A&P grocery store. I’d been working weekends for twelve and a half cents an hour, serving in every department but the butcher’s. My lunch at the corner drug store consisted of a steak sandwich for a dime and a chocolate frozen malt for a nickel. Frequently at noon, I would shoot dice and lose my pay for the day. It was a hard lesson in learning to handle defeat.
Another source of income was spending the hours from midnight to four a.m. setting pins at Bodecker's Bowling Alley for five cents per line. Most bowlers at that time of the morning were drinking heavily, and it was not uncommon to see bowler and ball come crashing down the alley. Of course, we were setting the pins by hand. Getting hit by flying pins was just a hazard of the trade.
I was also seldom without a newspaper route in those days, preferably the Dallas Morning News, which we threw every day about 3:00 a.m. One good thing about it was that most of us paperboys helped ourselves to the early morning delivery of delicious fresh-baked doughnuts at the local grocery store. I had been known to offer a warm doughnut to a Dallas police officer in his squad car when he came by checking on us.
In short, the National Guard was a tempting proposition. Soon after my conversation with Howard, eight of us got together and bought a Model T Ford for $12.00–-or maybe 12 of us bought a Model T Ford for $8.00. The details are hazy. All I know was that a dollar a night for every drill meant I could afford my share.
The Battle for Fresville
Upon arriving on the east bank of the river, Captain Taylor and I discussed how to use our 60mm mortars on the German troops in Fresville, in preparation for taking the village. By that time, I had access to two mortars. We decided to fire them both close to the church in the center of the village, trusting that the civilians would stay inside and not be hit.
Taylor took his 30 to 40 men and headed up the two narrow sandy roads leading toward Fresville. Meanwhile, I climbed a tall tree so I could get a good view of the village, which was somewhat uphill from our position down at the edge of the swamp. We set up our mortars in a field below the tree, with Duck and Fred manning them.
We had practiced so many set-up and firing drills in Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, Nebraska, Ireland and England that our first mortar rounds were right on target. I used the church steeple as a reference point and tried to keep our rounds on either side of the church. In this we were successful. Duck and Fred were so well trained that getting six rounds of ammunition in the air before the first one landed was no trouble. The first round had no sooner exploded than ten more rounds burst on target.
All across Normandy, German units were trying to figure out if every band of our troops they encountered actually represented an invasion force. During this initial period, the Allies were able to get established on the beaches, and thus the operation was successful. It is said that if the Germans had properly freed their great reserves to attack us all in the early stages of the landings, we might well have failed. At the least, we would have paid a much greater price for victory than was the painful case. We had been told back in England that causalities would be very high, and we believed it.
As I watched our troops move up the pair of roads leading into Fresville, I determined when we needed to quit firing the mortars to avoid hitting our own men. As soon as that time arrived, I climbed down the tree and our two abbreviated mortar squads raced up the road to get some of the action. I can't believe as I recall this that we would actually hurry to get shot at, but that was the sort of tiger blood that flowed through our veins in those days.
The battle in Fresville involved house to house combat, which is very spooky. The problem with attacking in this type of military operation is that the enemy knows the territory, but you are learning the city as you go along. There is not much "pucker time" as you kick open the doors. Fortunately, we had practiced infantry tactics in every form for over two years, including working from house to house, so our losses were not that bad in view of the potential.
Because we were providing covering fire for Captain Taylor and the rest, Duck, Fred, and I were late in getting into Fresville and the fight. We ran up the left branch into town, and had one minor scrap as we came up the road from the river. When we passed the spot we had been shooting at, we discovered two dead Germans. We assumed that they were the only enemy missed by Taylor’s group as they passed in route to Fresville.
Our troopers had run into considerable resistance from German infantry soldiers stationed in the village, but by the time we got to the church, the Krauts had been run out of town. When we arrived, only scattered small arms fire could be heard in the outskirts of the village.
TOURING EUROPE 10TH CLASS:
OR, MY LIFE AS A POW
Whenever we prisoners were being transported by truck, we were very sensitive to the faintest sound of aircraft engines, no matter how far away they might seem. We knew that, at over 300 miles an hour, the planes could be above us in a matter of seconds with eight machine guns belching flames and shells from their wings. The German guards and drivers were even more attuned to the sounds of fighters or bombers than we were. At the slightest indication of American aircraft, day or night, all Germans "abandoned ship," jumping off the truck and heading for any hole in the ground.
Most all of the trucks we rode in had tarpaulins over the truck beds which covered us up completely, prohibiting us to see or be seen. When we heard the planes approaching, we just sat in the truck. If it seemed like the planes were coming after our particular vehicle or convoy, we unloaded post-haste at the last minute, head over heels into the nearest ditch. This procedure happened about ten times on our trip from Normandy to Paris.
We probably walked 30 per cent of the distance, and were trucked for the rest of the way. Most of the truck moves were at night, but on one occasion when we encountered fighter planes, we had to cross from one side of a sandy road to the other in broad daylight. This way, the fighters could only get a shot at us from one side of the road, as opposed to making a strafing run down the length of it. Of course, the pilots had no idea that the trucks they were strafing housed American POWs, and that the bodies racing from one side of the road to the other were GIs.
As we were being moved out of the immediate combat zone, we spent some memorable days in a make-shift prison camp just outside of Alençon. Located to the southeast of La Manche, or the Cotentin Peninsula, Alençon lies just inside the border of the Department of Orne in the southern-most part of Normandy. For some reason, the town had become a stopping place for most Americans captured in the early fighting of the D-Day invasion. At the time, I had no idea that it was also the world's headquarters for fine lace, but my female friends would later assure me this was the case.
The consisted of a few small frame buildings surrounded by barbed wire and guards. There were two barracks-like structures with no windows and one large door, set up on concrete blocks to preclude rain water from running through. The barracks were about 20 feet wide and perhaps 40 feet long. At the time I was there, we had about 50 prisoners in each of the two buildings. Everyone slept on the floor.
There was no plumbing in the buildings, not even running water. Toilet facilities, as was the case in every prison I occupied, were a series of slit trenches dug into the earth, usually in as remote a spot as possible. The classier latrine or toilet facility had small pieces of thin concrete on each side of the slit trench where we could keep our feet out of the mud. Straddling a slit trench, elbow to elbow with fifty other men was not my idea of a "comfort station."