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Excerpts from A Salute to Patriotism: The Life and Work of Major General Howard L. Peckham

      When our sailing date of February 24 finally arrived, my mother and I went to Staten Island where our U.S. Army transport Harry Taylor was docked. Giving us and the other passengers a royal sendoff as we walked up the gangplank was an army band, which enthusiastically played sentimental and patriotic music down on the dock. A friendly guide directed us to our stateroom.    
      Not long thereafter, the anchor was pulled up and our ship slowly glided away from the pier. The USAT Harry Taylor,I learned after reading a souvenir booklet given to each of us passengers, was built in 1944 and was named after a general who had served as an executive officer of the Engineer Corps during World War I.       
       I read in the booklet that in 1945, the ship left Marseilles and was headed to the Pacific war zone by way of the Panama Canal when the captain was informed of the Japanese surrender. When the news was received, the ship’s bow turned joyfully towards New York, the booklet proclaimed. The ship’s postwar job was to carry military troops and members of military families to Germany as part of the occupation forces. Some of the passengers, such as my mother and I, were bound for other places in Europe.           
 
      Our journey was often rough, due to the frequent storms at that time of the year in North Atlantic waters. In my diary on the morning of February 28 I wrote: “I couldn’t sleep because we were rocking so much. The waves looked like huge snowcapped mountains.”               
       At breakfast a bit later, I was fascinated to see the way our juice glasses frequently wobbled or slid across the table, and to hear the noisy rattle of cereal bowls and other dishes. Fortunately, I didn’t get seasick.  On clear days my favorite pastime was standing near the railing to watch the dark-blue ocean as the ship’s bow cut through it like a huge pie knife, particularly after a storm had recently abated. When the waves turned over, I would see a lovely shade of aqua.                      

 

     For us teenagers, there were several good ways to pass the time.  I never missed watching the movies shown in the auditorium on our deck, which one rainy day included The Red Danube with Walter Pidgeon and Janet Leigh.  I also enjoyed reading books and magazines borrowed from the ship’s library, which I read while relaxing in a deck chair. (I had a crush on the attractive and friendly soldier who worked behind the library counter, which was another reason for frequently visiting the library.) 

        Because this was primarily a troop ship, many fire drills were scheduled in which we family members needed to participate. The ship had seven decks, and the troops—soldiers who were traveling without families—were not on our deck but on a different one.   Mother and I didn’t follow the instructions correctly during our first abandon-ship drill. In our haste to get to our proper station within the time allowed, we ended up standing at attention on the troop deck, lined up with hundreds of soldiers. We should have been with the other hundred or so family members on another deck, but it was too late to get there after we discovered our mistake. 

      She and I laughed about that incident several times in the days that followed. Like Dad, my mother loved jokes and laughter, even when the jokes were on her.

      After nine days at sea, a series of exciting events took place indicating we were approaching Europe. On March 3, I spotted a fleet of graceful Irish fishing boats. At six o’clock the next morning, our ship picked up a  pilot boat at Dover on the English Channel. Not long afterwards, we entered the North Sea, where we could see a few small English vessels.

        On March 6, the port city of Bremerhaven in northwest Germany came into view. We gently entered its bleak harbor and pulled up beside a long wooden pier, where lively music played by a U.S. Army band greeted us. It was the same kind of music we had heard during our sendoff twelve days earlier, only less sentimental. 

It all seemed unreal. An army car with a general’s star on its bumper plate was waiting for us near the area where my father met us, and the driver slowly took the three of us on our way. When military personnel walked by, most snapped at attention while saluting Dad, and he looked very important when he returned their salutes from the car window. He wasn’t the casually dressed father in postwar Washington who had helped me with my math homework in the evenings—he was a senior officer in the European Command (EUCOM), and he belonged to a conquering army with headquarters in a vanquished land. When the car started traveling farther away from the docks, I felt more than ready to be on dry land again; however, I was emotionally not prepared for the ghostly sight of downtown Bremerhaven as our car and driver took us through it.

 The docks looked largely unimpaired, fortunately for the transport ships, but the buildings in the downtown area had been completely shattered by Allied bombs, and nothing had really been done about rebuilding them yet.  In some areas the city looked like a giant concrete pancake, where no buildings stood. 

        I told my father that seeing the piles of rubble was a shock, and he agreed that the damage had been extensive—but necessary. “Strategic targets, such as railroads, oil refineries, bridges, and industrial sites, were intentionally bombed by Allied pilots,” he explained, “but they purposely avoided hitting docks that could be used by our ships after the war, such as those here.”

      The trains seemed to be working fine now, and we boarded one that began carrying us through Germany. I then saw more of the rueful damage done to that nation, destruction the Allies had needed to inflict in order to win the war. Throughout the countryside, which I described in my diary as looking “torn up,” industrial buildings opened up to the late-winter sky, and we saw big dumps of bricks and concrete everywhere. All that remained of many houses was a lone wall or perhaps a gutted frame.

Aside from the devastation, danger still lurked in some parts of the Siegfried Line, a defense system of fortifications built by the Germans along their country’s western frontier. We personally were not in danger, but AGRC recovery teams certainly were, as my father told us: “Minefields exist in dense parts of the Siegfried Line that haven’t been cleared”, he said. “This situation creates time delays for AGRC teams searching those areas for fallen Americans.”  Searches for our soldiers were also difficult in the thick brambles of the Hurtgen Forest, where there were still several mines. Dad described this problem in a status report he wrote for the Occupation Forces in Europe Series: The Third Year, 1947-1948, which was later published by the Army Historical Division (1949).

 While our train clanked through the land of Wagner, I didn’t think further about the difficult work of AGRC recovery teams at the Siegfried Line or in the Hurtgen Forest. 

 I was busily observing people through our compartment’s window, such as the dour-faced men and women who seemed almost lifeless as they shuffled along on the often-broken pavement. The bitter air of winter had undoubtedly intensified their misery. Even the younger ones, perhaps still in their twenties or thirties, appeared withdrawn, as if they carried a heavy burden.

      At one point during that long night, U.S. Army personnel led us off the train at a railroad station and into an army car.

       The car and soldier driver then took us through a part of Germany that was far away from Bremerhaven, but maybe my fatigue only made it seem that way. We were probably going from one station to another, but I don’t remember the exact reason for this dreary, fog-shrouded journey. Someone from my father’s office in Paris had made efficient transportation arrangements for our trip, but nothing could have been done about the weather. We traveled for several scary miles through opaque fog, and the car’s headlights cast long beams of light to guide us as we rolled carefully on our way.

 

A Salute to Patriotism: The Life and Work of Major General Howard L. Peckham  is available at

http://www.amazon.com/dp/0966585550/

 

 

 

 

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