In February of 1941, my grandfather – who we lovingly called “Poppy” – was enjoying life. He was an excellent athlete and a very successful football player with a promising future; he was playing semi-pro football in a neighboring town to a crowd of thousands every Sunday. He had a good job, and, in his own words, was coaching “the best softball team in the world in this little town of Dunellen, NJ.”
By March, Poppy had gotten the draft order to report for induction on April 14, 1941. He spent the next several years fighting in Europe during World War II, in Company H 254th Infantry of the United States Army. He suffered on the front lines through the brutality of The Battle of the Bulge, and was one of some two dozen WWII soldiers to serve the unfortunate duty of bearing witness to the first and last execution of a US soldier for desertion since the Civil War. Both were experiences he rarely talked about, but that haunted him his entire life.
Poppy kept a diary of his experiences in WWII. My family helped him transcribe that into a personal memoir. Below is the ending excerpt, detailing his trip home from the war.
The draft was supposed to last only one year. Four and a half years later, Poppy finally returned home.
Then in mid-September the word came down we’re going home. We’re going home! On the Queen Mary! On the Queen Mary!
When we were told the Queen Mary would make the crossing in 4 1/2 days, cheers went up. We dreaded taking 11 days like it took us to come over.
In a few days we were all packed and got down to the Queen Mary in Dock. What a beautiful looking monster. We boarded and a tour of the ship was breathtaking. The lower decks, the upper decks, the Promenade, the swimming pool were all eye-catching. For two days troops were loading. I wondered how many. Our higher ups conferred with the captain of the Queen Mary and were told that it was loaded to capacity at 15,000. Holy cow! 15,000 on one ship? Unbelievable.
Hitler put a bounty on the Queen Mary offering $250,000 and the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves to any U-boat that could sink her.
We set sail for the good ole United States of America. What a ship. It sailed along and you didn’t even know it. No sea sickness. The chow lines were something to write home about. There were two meals a day. With 15,000 troops to feed, the chow line weaved from the front of the ship to the back of the ship, from the lower deck to the upper deck, then back down to the feeding area. With mess kit in hand, at the feeding area, they slapped it in and kept the line moving at a fast pace; still it took two hours in the chow line. We found a way to beat it: eat one meal a day. While in the chow line we passed the drained swimming pool down below which troops used for their sleeping quarters – a hilarious sight. Look like a bowl of lentils.
After 4 1/2 days of sailing, the United States of America became visible. What a feeling-the statue of liberty was a better feeling. The sail up the Hudson River to Pier 90 was touching. The date is September 28, 1945 as we docked, we really got a surprise. Down below to greet us were the “Andrews Sisters.” They really looked beautiful. What a welcome.
We disembarked, boarded a ferry, then a train and headed for Fort Dix for discharge. During my physical, medics told me that my hearing wasn’t up to par and asked if I wanted treatment. I said, “Hell no!; I waited 4 1/2 years for this discharge and I don’t want anything to hold it up.” I got my discharge October 5, 1945 4 1/2 years after the day I was drafted.
I think my five month wait for a boat to come home should be in the Guinness book as the longest wait for a boat. I boarded a train for New Brunswick, New Jersey. While I was in the service my parents moved from Dunellen to Manville, New Jersey. As I got off the train, I started hitchhiking for Manville but nobody would pick me up. I wondered why. Then it dawned on me why-I was carrying my duffel bag loaded; my bulky Army winter coat, combat boots, etc. I looked like a loaded truck! I said, what the hell do I need this stuff for, and heaved it all off the roadside. Whoever found this stuff must’ve thought something was fishy. Anyway, it worked. A nice young man picked me up and helped me find the house my parents moved to while I was in the service. What a surprise to my parents to see me. My brothers and sisters came home later and a surprise to them also. My younger brother, Eddie, went into the service later than me and he was to come home later.
Adjusting to civilian life was easy. I got my old job back, went to apprentice school and before long was Journeyman Photoengraver. The job paid well
I married a beautiful girl, Evelyn, the girl I have my eye on before going into the service. Capt. Tarpey attended our wedding. We have seven good children and 13 grandchildren. The war is behind me now and from what I saw in the service, life here in America can’t be better. The grandchildren keep my wife and I jumping and we enjoyed. I managed a Little League team for 10 years, which my three boys were in.
During the Christmas holidays my service buddies and I would exchange cards and reminisce. I tried to have a reunion in New York but they were all tied down financially. As the years rolled by, we heard less and less from each other. It’s been 50 years now since Normandy and I often wonder how many of us are still here.
On this Independence Day, remember those who sacrificed so much to help ensure our freedoms here on American soil. Poppy wrote often about the atrocities of Hitler while off in WWII. He also wrote about his love for this country, and just how grateful he was to be an American.
One of my favorite memories as a child was helping Poppy to hang the special flag out from the porch every Fourth of July. Hours later, we’d sit on that porch with other family members and neighbors from around the block, enjoying the parade as it passed us by.
Those were days I cherish. I only wish that I knew then just how much Poppy cherished them, too.
Happy Independence Day.