Gene was excited to have the chance to go home and see his parents. The three-day leave gave him just enough time to travel home to say goodbye to his family before shipping out overseas. He hadn’t seen his parents since May. The last memory he had of his parents was from the bus window as they waved goodbye to him on his way out of the bus depot, bound for Altoona.
Gene was understandably anxious to get home. Everything had happened so fast, he didn’t have time to contact his parents to tell them he was coming home. He just wanted to get home as fast as he could. He didn’t want to waste a moment of his three-day pass waiting to get a ride or to call his parents. So Gene bought a round trip ticket from Greyhound, and boarded a bus heading to Pennsylvania. He soon found himself back at the bus depot in Bedford. It was at least fifteen miles from the bus station to his home in Dunkard Hollow. So he picked up his duffle bag from the bus driver and decided to hitchhike from Bedford. As he began walking, he was reminded of all the marching he had done during basic training. After all that marching, the distance to his home from Bedford seemed easy. Fortunately he was dressed in his uniform, and people were happy to give him a ride as he stuck out his thumb to hitchhike.
Bob, who lived in nearby Pleasantville—and was a member of the initiation party who doused Gene with water in high school—happened to be in Bedford on the same day Gene arrived from Newport News. Bob backed out of his parking space and began driving away from the courthouse. Near the intersection at Pitt Street, he saw a soldier who looked like Gene Wentz, carrying his duffle bag and hitchhiking. He pulled over to the side of the road to pick up the hitchhiker. The soldier ran to the car, opened the passenger door, and stuck his head inside.
Bob said, “Say, aren’t you Gene Wentz?”
“Sir, yes, sir.”
“Do you want a ride to Pleasantville?” asked Bob.
“Sir, yes, sir.”
Bob told Gene to put his bag on the back seat and get in. Gene got into the car and closed the door, thanking Bob for the ride. “Sure thing, glad to help,” Bob grinned. They then pulled away from the curb and headed toward home. While driving, Bob and Gene began to talk.
“How long will you be home?”“I have a three day pass and it took me all day to get here,” Gene said.
“If you’d like, I’ll take you to your house.”
“Yes, sir. Thank you,” Gene responded.
They continued talking, and the 15 miles seemed to pass quickly. When they got to Gene’s house, Bob pulled off the road out in front of the Wentz farm. Gene got out of the car, grabbed his duffle bag from the back seat, and again thanked Bob for the ride. Bob waved to Gene as he pulled back onto the road and drove away. Gene waved goodbye, turned and ran up to his house.
Gene burst into the kitchen and was immediately greeted by his brother, Delmar, and his sister, Melba. Surprised, they began yelling and hugging Gene, and he dropped his duffle bag in the middle of the kitchen floor. He calmed them and asked where their parents were.
“Dad is at work,” Delmar said.
“Mom’s in the barn milking the cows,” Melba chimed in.
Immediately upon hearing this, Gene turned around and ran to the barn. Entering the barn, he yelled out, “Hey Mom, aren’t you done milking yet?” His mom was so startled to see him she knocked over the bucket of milk and upset the stool. She ran to him and began hugging him, embracing him so tightly that he thought she was going to squeeze all the air out of him. She was so shocked to see him, she cried and held him in her arms. Extending her arms to look at him, she would then draw him closer to wrap her arms around him again. It was as if she couldn’t believe her eyes. She had to keep hugging him to reassure herself that he was really there. Later, he asked her why she hadn’t noticed him coming into the barn. She told him she had heard a loud noise, but she thought it was one of the goats.
When his dad arrived home from work, he met Gene in the same way Gene’s mom greeted him. Myrel stood and looked at him and then began hugging him.
Throughout the next day, Gene answered hundreds of questions, but he never got tired of answering any of them. His brothers and sisters wanted to know about his adventures in basic training. He told them he had been trained to be a scout, but didn’t know exactly where or when he would use those skills. His parents wanted to know where he would be shipped. He could only tell them that he was assigned to the European theater and that he had to report to Newport News, Va., by Monday, October 25, 1943.
On Sunday, Gene packed his duffle bag and prepared to return to Newport News. His mom and dad drove him in the family’s 1936 Ford sedan back to the bus depot. Gene said goodbye to his parents. His mom kissed his cheek with tears in her eyes and told him to be safe. His dad hugged him and told him to be careful. Gene boarded another Greyhound bus, and his mom and dad began waving goodbye. As the bus pulled out of the depot, his parents continued to wave. Once again, Gene watched his parents disappear out of sight, as the bus finally turned south on Richard Street. He didn’t know how long it would be until he would see them again. Saying goodbye reminded him of leaving for Camp Shelby. But this time, it felt distinctly different. Reality was setting in for Gene, and he wasn’t sure what his future held, but even with the uncertainty, he was confident that he could do the job that lay ahead.
He changed buses several times en route to Newport News and arrived on time to check in and report to his designated area. He was assigned a bunk and began preparing himself for what was yet to come.
Gene had been assigned to the European theater—to become one of thousands of replacement troops who headed across the Atlantic Ocean. Replacement troops were to fill positions in the many different divisions that were already engaged in battle. The replacements were assigned “as needed” to bring the battle divisions back to full strength after losses due to casualties.
On October 26, 1943, Gene boarded the Empress of Scotland bound for the European theater. The Empress of Scotland was originally called the “Empress of Japan,” a luxury liner that had sailed from Japan to ports along the Pacific north rim. A Canadian firm owned the ship, and when the war broke out with Japan they renamed her. It was a “three stacker,” which meant it had three smoke stacks, making it an extremely fast ship. She was able to travel up to 28 knots and could outrun any German U-boat.
Gene’s squad didn’t start boarding the ship until after the noon chow. Soldiers continued to board, and supplies were loaded onto the ship well into the night. Once Gene had settled into his assigned bunk on the ship, he went to the galley for the evening chow. The galley was a large room in the middle of the ship with rows and rows of tables. As Gene joined the line of men going into the room, he smelled something foul. Caused by the cooks scorching beans, the aroma wasn’t very appetizing at all, but Gene and the soldiers were starving, so they ate the scorched beans, and big, thick, juicy, steaks. They ate quickly and returned to their bunks for the night. A few days into their journey, Gene discovered that the steaks that everyone had enjoyed were actually horsemeat. Because the Empress Of Scotland was a Canadian-owned ship, there were no policies against serving horsemeat. Gene was sure that an American ship wouldn’t have permitted this. He really loved horses and it really bothered him to know that he had eaten a horse. It was like eating Ol’ Charlie, his friend from back home, and he knew he just couldn’t do that.
The Empress of Scotland was rocking back and forth at the dock, ever so slightly, while troops were boarding and supplies were being loaded. By the early morning hours of October 28, 1943, four or five thousand troops had boarded the ship, and she soon left port, beginning her journey across the Atlantic Ocean toward North Africa.
By mid-morning of the first day, almost every soldier on board was seasick. Men were throwing up in their bunks, in the hallways, and in the restrooms—called the “head.” Gene wasn’t sick yet, but he was beginning to feel a little queasy. So many men were getting sick around him that he decided he needed to get out of the area. He thought if he got some fresh air he would feel better. He worked his way up several tiers of steps, finally reaching the “promenade,” or topside deck. Unfortunately, the fresh air didn’t help. As he stood on the deck, he saw the ship rising and falling over the waves, and the up and down movement of the ship only made things worse. The ship would appear to be going down into the water, and then up into the sky. Gene made it to the rail and promptly vomited over the side. Soon several men were standing beside Gene along the rail “feeding the fish” too. Whatever was in their stomachs was now down over the side of the ship. Gene felt miserable as he hung over the rail. But the feeling of wanting to vomit when there was nothing left in his stomach made him feel even worse. Gene thought every man on that ship must have felt just as miserable as he.
The Red Cross had provided oranges to the Empress of Scotland to help men overcome their seasickness. One of the crewmembers sold these oranges to the soldiers for 5˘ each. The soldiers would eat the oranges quickly, because they were so hungry and thirsty from being seasick. However, the oranges would only remain in their stomachs about as long as it took to eat them. Then soldiers were leaning over the rail feeding the fish again.
To Gene, the trip across the Atlantic seemed to last forever. In reality, the Empress of Scotland was able to make the trip from Newport News to Casablanca in eight days. In 1943, crossing the Atlantic Ocean in eight days was incredibly fast. But as horrible as Gene and the other men felt on the ship, they didn’t think this was nearly fast enough. The soldiers weren’t able to keep much of substance in their stomachs during those eight days.
By the fourth day at sea, many of the soldiers had become more accustomed to the movement of the ship. Gene’s stomach began to settle and he decided to try eating in the galley again. After reading the menu that had been posted outside the galley, Gene decided the meal sounded appetizing. The soldiers were still feeling queasy, but managed to make their way down to the galley. The men got in line and the food was placed on their trays. As the men began eating, everything seemed to be fine. However, as Gene ate, the scene in the galley began to change. Gene didn’t know where it started, but somebody began vomiting. First one guy, and then another, and another, and soon just about every soldier was “spilling his cookies.” Many of the men who weren’t vomiting, were trying to leave. But they began slipping and sliding on the vomit from the other men. Soldiers were throwing up in every part of the galley. Soon a few of the others who had to view this scene began vomiting also. The galley turned into quite a cauldron of commotion. After this meal, Gene decided that he wasn’t going to the galley again while he was on the ship. He felt so lousy that he didn’t want to do much of anything. If he wasn’t eating oranges or hanging over the rail to feed the fish, he was attempting to play cards.
Gene was more than ready to get to land and he was extremely happy when the ship finally arrived in Casablanca, Morocco. Even after arriving at the port, Gene and the other soldiers still had to wait on the rocking ship for several more hours. Those last few hours waiting on the ship seemed like an eternity. Finally, Gene’s squad was given permission to disembark from the Empress of Scotland, and shortly after reaching solid ground Gene realized he was starving. He found the nearest chow line and joined it. The food was delicious, and the best part was he no longer felt like throwing up.
After all the soldiers had disembarked from the ship, they were organized into platoons. The troops marched from the port, through the city of Casablanca, to their encampment. After disembarkation from the ship, the newly arrived soldiers remained at the encampment for several days. It was comprised of several large open areas just outside the city. Part of the camp where Gene was assigned reminded him of the infield at a racetrack. Pyramid tents were set up for the troops. There were tents as far as the eye could see. Each soldier was given a straw mat to sleep on. After being assigned to a tent and stowing their duffle bags, the men were assembled in the large open areas in the camp. While at the encampment near Casablanca, the men received additional training, and of course, endured more marching. Marching was the commanders’ way of keeping the soldiers busy while deciding which men would be sent where.
While at the camp, one of the men in Gene’s squad discovered a horse wandering through the camp. Several soldiers attempted to mount the horse and ride it around. Their efforts proved to be unsuccessful because the horse kept backing away from them as they approached. It wouldn’t allow any of the men close enough for them to get on its back. The men were timid and afraid when they approached it, and the horse sensed their fear. And it didn’t help that they kept trying to mount the horse on its right side.
Gene walked up to the horse and began to pet its head, rub its neck and talk softly. He moved to the left side of the horse and continued speaking softly and patting its neck. He grabbed the mane and gave a quick jump as he pulled himself up on the horse’s back. Gene had mounted Ol’ Charlie the same way many times back in Dunkard Hollow. Gene was on the back of the horse and off for a ride. The other men were dumbfounded that Gene was able to get on the horse and ride away. They were amazed and wanted to know how he had done it. Gene soon realized that many of these men were from East Coast cities and therefore didn’t know much about horses. Gene never explained how he had so easily gotten onto the back of the horse. He left them thinking he had a special gift with animals—which was essentially correct.
For the weekend following their arrival in Africa, many of the soldiers were given passes to go into the city of Casablanca. The only thing Gene knew about Casablanca was from the motion picture. But Gene wasn’t Humphrey Bogart and Casablanca didn’t look anything like the movie. To him, everything in Casablanca had a thin layer of dust over it. Even the people seemed to have a dusty look about them. Walking down the streets of Casablanca, Gene noticed an offset—or niche—every so often in the wall of a building. There was a low partition protruding out toward the street in the middle of the niche. Above each side of the partition were two signs. On one side was a sign for men and on the other was a sign for women. These niches were places for people to relieve themselves along the street. This amazed Gene because people walking by were able to easily see what you were doing. While using the facility someone could look over the partition and see the person of the opposite sex doing the same thing. Gene was concerned that some of the women may be a little curious about the American soldiers. Were the Americans any different from the men of Casablanca? This was definitely a new experience for the young man from Dunkard Hollow.
After spending a day in Casablanca, Gene returned to the encampment to find what seemed like a frantic scene—men running every which way. Gene found his platoon preparing to leave the camp. “Field Rations, Type C” were given to each soldier and Gene was sure this meant they were leaving the encampment. C-rations usually consisted of corned beef and several other stews. The men were also given “Canned Heat” for cooking the C-rations. If the C-rations were heated just right, Gene thought they didn’t taste half bad. After everyone was given their C-rations, and other supplies, the men packed everything in their duffle bags and prepared to leave the encampment.
In routine preparation to leave, the soldiers formed into squads and platoons for marching. The objective was to march to a nearby railroad yard. This march was rather short in comparison to the length of some of the marches in basic training. When the soldiers arrived at the yard, officers met them and told them which train they were to board. When they got to their train, another officer told each platoon their assigned railroad car. The entire platoon moved forward to their assigned car, stepping over several sets of tracks, in the large railroad yard. Gene’s platoon quickly boarded their assigned car. He was glad they didn’t have to stand around and wait.
Their train was made up of railroad cars called “forty-and-eights.” These boxcars became famous due to their use by the French Army during World War I. The French used them to transport soldiers to and from the front. Each boxcar allegedly carried “40 men or 8 horses,” thus the name. The cars were stubby—with little more than half the capacity of American boxcars—as they were only 20˝ feet long and 8˝ feet wide. The way the narrow gauge railroad cars were built reminded Gene of a large wooden crate. Much like a crate, the horizontal boards were about six to eight inches wide, with a gap in between each board. In the center of the car on each side was an open doorway. On both sides, about two feet below the floor, was a flat board about an inch thick and six inches wide. Like a running board, this ran between the front and back wheel axles. Indeed, the men called them running boards because they looked like what was on their automobiles back in the States. When standing on the ground, the floor of the railroad car was about chest high for most of the men. About midway across each doorway, another horizontal board was attached to the frame. The men would climb onto the running board, and then use this board across the doorway to balance themselves before crawling underneath and into the railroad car.
After Gene’s platoon climbed aboard their assigned car, they staked out a place to sit against a sidewall. Each man used his duffle bag as a backrest as they sat waiting for the rest of the men to board the train. For what seemed like an hour or more, everyone sat on the train waiting for it to move. The sun was hot and the railroad cars felt like an oven on wheels. The troops were getting warmer and warmer. Between the heat and waiting for the train to be loaded, the men began getting hungry. They finally decided they had waited long enough, and began to get back off the train.
Some of them found an open space near the train to heat their C-rations. More and more of the men began leaving the train cars and cooking their meals. Many of the soldiers had almost heated their C-rations warm enough to eat, when suddenly the whistle on the train sounded one short toot. Almost immediately after the whistle sounded, the train began moving slowly down the track. The men dropped their C-rations and cookers in the dirt and began running to catch up to the moving train. As they neared the train, they would jump onto the running board, and climb into the car. But soon after many of the men had returned to the train, it stopped. The train had only traveled about fifty feet before it halted. Again, the soldiers were sitting in the hot sun and time passed slowly. There was no indication when the train would be moving again. And as before, the soldiers began to get off the train. Some of the men went back and found their C-rations and heaters they had dropped earlier. If the food was still edible, they put the Canned Heat under the C-rations again and tried to salvage their meals. As the soldiers who had stayed on the train saw the others eating, they decided to get off the train also and began heating their own C-rations. Once again, however, the train whistle sounded a short toot and the train started moving slowly down the tracks. The second time the train moved, only a handful of the soldiers dropped their meals, running to catch the moving train. Many of the men stayed where they were and continued heating their food. And as before, the train stopped after only traveling a few dozen feet.
After the second stop, more and more of the men decided to get off the train and heat their C-rations. This was repeated several times—the whistle blew a short toot, and the train would move another fifty or hundred feet and would stop. By the fifth or sixth move-and-stop, almost all of the soldiers were off the train and heating their C-rations. When the soldiers did get their food heated, they would climb back onto the train and would eat it. Gene was part of the first group to get off the train and heat his meal. He had climbed back into his assigned railroad car, leaned up against his duffle bag and enjoyed his hot meal. After Gene finished eating, he stowed his mess kit and sat waiting with the rest of the men.
They lost track of how many times they heard the train whistle give one short toot and move a few feet down the track. There were many false starts and men scrambling to get back on the train. Finally, the whistle made two long blasts and the train again began moving slowly down the tracks. Quite a few of the men were still on the ground heating or eating their C-rations. They didn’t think anything of the different whistle and continued what they were doing. To their dismay, the two longer blasts of the whistle meant the train was finally leaving the railroad yard. It moved forward, slowly at first, but soon began picking up speed. It didn’t take too long for the train to start gaining momentum and really get moving down the tracks. The men, sitting on the ground still heating their C-rations, finally realized that this wasn’t just a move of a few feet and they needed to get on the train immediately. The soldiers ran to get to their assigned car, leaving their rations behind. Running along beside the car, the men would jump up onto the running board, grabbing for the board across the doorway to steady themselves. Then they would stand on the running board for a few seconds to get their bearings, and scramble into the railroad car. Some of the other soldiers would help pull them into the car.
One soldier had waited a little too long to get back onto the train. He ran hard to catch his assigned car. As he was running beside the car, he made his jump for the running board and grabbed for the cross board, but he lost his grip. As he lost his grip on the cross board, the running board below his feet broke beneath him. He tumbled under the railroad car, falling onto the tracks. Unfortunately, before he had a chance to avoid them, the wheels of the railroad car ran over him. The men who had seen him fall began calling for someone to stop the train. The conductor eventually received the message and the train was stopped, but it was already too late—the soldier had been killed. A somber hush came over the train. The men just sat and waited for the train to move again. This was quite a sobering experience and really bothered many of the men. The train had moved quite a distance from the railroad yard before anyone spoke.
The train moved quickly along the tracks toward Oran, Algeria—a Mediterranean city across from the eastern border of Morocco. Casablanca became a speck on the horizon as the train passed through the Moroccan desert. Looking through the cracks in the boards of the car, the only thing the soldiers could see were sand dunes as far as the eye could see. Every so often the men saw people crawling out of holes in the sand embankments near the tracks. Gene thought these people looked like animals coming out of their holes. It reminded him of the groundhogs back home in Dunkard Hollow. He wasn’t sure what kind of people they were, but they were dark-skinned and had a dusty look similar to the people he had seen in Casablanca.
As the train moved farther down the tracks, the men spotted an oasis. Surprisingly, in the middle of all that sand they saw lush, green plants. Gene thought that it was odd that while the oasis had a cluster of trees, the people living in this area continued to protect themselves by living underground. These people were entering and exiting their homes through a hole in the ground.
Suddenly, one of the men on the train shouted, “Look, look there!” The train had slowed near the oasis. The soldier was trying to draw everyone’s attention to a pregnant woman. She had squatted a few feet away from the railroad tracks and was giving birth in plain view of the train and the soldiers. The men were awestruck by the sight. Gene had never seen anything like this before in his life.
Upon arrival at Oran, the men picked up their duffle bags, got off the train, and assembled into their platoons beside the tracks. From the railroad yard at Oran, the soldiers marched directly to the docks and boarded a ship bound for Naples, Italy. After his previous experience on a ship, Gene was not enthusiastic about boarding a ship again, but he had no choice. As he stowed his duffle bag, he hoped this would be a short trip. Thankfully, the voyage across the Mediterranean Sea from Oran to Naples only lasted two days. Gene thought this trip was just long enough, and was nothing compared to his last sea voyage. There was no feeding the fish on the way to Italy.