Monday, March 17, 2014

Frank, Part III: Marching to War

Frank Strukel (left) in or near Marseilles, France,
December 1944

On October 28, 1944, Frank Louis Strukel celebrated his 22nd birthday. Perhaps he got a few slaps on the back from his comrades and a handful of well wishes, and perhaps it was a pleasant diversion for Frank and his buddies, as the rush for deployment was in full force. The last replacements for the 274th Infantry Regiment had arrived at Fort Leonard Wood earlier in the month, and they were preparing for movement. Frank's excitement was subdued by the realities of what he would soon be facing. He had just learned from home that his cousin Helen Strukel's husband, Albert J. Stevens, had just been killed overseas on November 9th. As the company readied to leave for the east coast, Frank and all his comrades knew they might not return, but nobody spoke of such things.

In mid-November, 1944, Frank was sent with the 274th Regiment to Camp Myles Standish in Taunton, Massachusetts, to stage shipment to Europe. The bulk of the 274th left the port of Boston on December 1, 1944, aboard the S.S. Mariposa. But Frank and the rest of Company L left Boston the following week with the 275th and 276th Regiment of the 70th Infantry Division. On December 7, 1944, the U.S.S. West Point (AP23) left for Marseilles, France.

U.S.S. West Point (AP23) during service in World War II

The U.S.S. West Point (AP23) began her sea-faring life as the S.S. America upon her launch by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt on 31 August 1939. She was a sleek luxury liner that could accommodate just under 2,000 passengers and crew. The grandiosity and ostentatious design of the old cruise ships was replaced with a sleek, contemporary modern design, utilizing stainless steel, ceramics and new plastics. As the war raged in Europe, the S.S. America's planned North Atlantic route was abandoned for sailing in safer waters, but her life as a passenger liner ended quickly when the United States entered World War II. While in port at Saint Thomas in the Virgin Islands in May 1941, the ship was ordered to Newport News, Virginia, to be handed over to the Navy. The ship was repainted a camouflage gray while moored at Norfolk, Virginia, and refitted for the capacity of 7,678 troops. She was put into use as a troop transport ship that summer.

Howard Mumm of Company I, 275th Regiment was on board with Frank during this trans-Atlantic voyage. He stated that "living quarters consisted of small rooms lined with bunks spaced five high with barely enough distance between to climb into. Seasickness was common, beginning almost as soon as the ship cleared harbor. The throbbing of the engines and the roll of the vessel quickly brought a feeling of nausea to almost everyone. The sea was reasonably calm considering we were in the Atlantic in midwinter. Movement about ship was restricted to groups permitted on deck and to mess by units on a rotation basis. Many of the men were too ill to get up and preferred to lie in the bunks; for many it was impossible to eat."

The men were not informed of their fate or their destination, as Mumm stated, "After two or three days rumor spread that our destination was Europe - the Mediterranean area. The weather cleared beautifully, and going on deck was a real treat especially after being confined to the lower areas for long periods. We passed through the Strait of Gibraltar still speculating as to our destination. At the end of five or six days since leaving Boston we dropped anchor in Marseilles. Each man had been given the opportunity to shower (in salt water) just once during the voyage."

The U.S.S.West Point (AP23) docked at Marseilles, France, on 16 December 1944. George Marshall of Company I, 275th Infantry Regiment, was also on board with Frank, and he detailed their arrival. "We arrive at the port of Marseilles, France, at 8:00 in the morning. There are old fortress turrets looking down at us from high bluffs. Sure are glad they were silenced before we got here. There was evidence of much destruction of harbor facilities as well as in the town itself. A number of ships seemed to have been scuttled to avoid capture. This was our first sight of a war torn country, and it left a lasting impression on all of us." On the following day, the troops disembarked the U.S.S. West Point, but harbor conditions precluded them from making direct contact with the dock. The men had to jump into small lighters that bobbed alongside the ship to go ashore. This is not completed until after 2:30 a.m. the next morning. Marshall noticed that "these houses in France all had their window shutters closed and locked. Just another spooky reminder that we were in a foreign land, and that we were being drawn closer into the shooting war that we had all trained for."

The men were trucked to a staging area near the village of Aix to join the rest of the 274th that had arrived six days before. As Mumm stated, "there on a barren hillside we were assigned temporary quarters in tents, pitched in a grassless, treeless wasteland. A chilly rain mixed with large snow flakes fell intermittently." Per Marshall, "Our immediate problems of pitching tents and bedding down on top of the plateau in the mud and rain was far more real than the shooting war. A really miserable mess." But for a few days, the men get to explore the area around them and some get passes for a day in Marseilles. It is likely during this four-day lull that the above photograph that opens this blog post was taken. The soldiers are warned that in Marseilles are 14,000 registered "ladies of ill repute." George Marshall spent a day in Marseille on December 19th. "Just to walk the streets of this town, is to fill one with revulsion. The filth and corruption seem to be everywhere. Every doorway has its sleazy character trying to sell me obscene postcards. "Feelthy picture, Joe?" I only hope that this is just a symptom of the war-torn world that these people have been forced to endure for so long that they have forgotten society's rules of decency. Maybe it is now their only means of survival, waiting only for the return of a normal economy. Maybe it's just France. More reminders of the foreign environment and the war."

Together the men were now dubbed "Task Force Herren" under the command of deputy division commander Thomas W. Herren. There was little time for rest. The 70th Infantry Division was deployed to reinforced the front lines, and they were expected immediately. On 20 December 1944, they boarded a train of "forty-and-eight" box cars and traveled northward through Mulhouse roughly going parallel to the Rhine River toward Strasbourg and to the front lines. The cars gained their nickname as each was rated by the Army as capable of carrying either forty soldiers or eight horses. Ralph Crawford of the 275th described, "no one who has seen one can forget the sign, HOMMES-40-CHEVAUX-8. In other words, the old French Forty and Eights looked as though they had seen service since Napoleon. No complaints about ventilation there. Every car fitted out with a perfect cooling system. Cooling did I say? Forgive me, I meant, freezing! At the time we thought that we were as close to hell as we could get, eating 10-in-1s [parceled field ration intended to provide one meal for ten men], griping, lurching to and fro with the old cheese-boxes... and relieving ourselves in the most undignified positions ever though of in man's perverted dreams." The men covered over 500 miles in cramped conditions and arrived at Brumath, France, on Christmas Eve.

British soldiers on board a "forty-and-eight" boxcar, 1939.
Note the stenciled sign to the top right of the open door,
"HOMMES 40: CHEVEAUX (en long) 8"

Howard Mumm again: "That night it was difficult to remember that it was Christmas Eve. There were no Christmas trees, bright lights and tinsel; no carols were sung; no gifts were exchanged. Now and then a "Merry Christmas" was heard but there was little enthusiasm. The past few weeks of anxiety and fatigue and ever worsening cold weather had taken their toll. Only in our own hearts and to ourselves could we express all the longings for the things of the past: home and loved ones, remembrances of other Christmas Eves..." Artillery fire could be heard nearby consistently, but despite the bitter cold and sounds of war it was the last decent sleep any men of "Task Force Herren" would experience. The following day the men of the 70th Infantry Division would march to the vicinity of Bischwiller, France, south of the Haguenau Forest, and take over defensive positions on the west bank of the Rhine River.

For 22-year-old Frank Strukel, the reality of war was finally settling in, and unfortunately he had no way of knowing his first week's ordeal in France would be the highlight of his service in Europe. "War is Hell," first uttered by General William Tecumseh Sherman in 1879 while recounting his war career, has been aptly used to describe every war thereafter. Because after Christmas, 1944, Frank Louis Strukel would enter hell. 


  1. Good to see you are back. I do look forward to your posts. You have a special way of telling your story....very interesting to read.

  2. I've sure been enjoying your compelling story. I eagerly await each evening's episode, which I get via email, and missed it during your computer problems. Glad you got things straightened out. I'm a book editor and find it so well written. Each cliffhanging post had me anxiously awaiting the next.

  3. So great that you got your computer problems resolved and were able to start writing your blog again. Thank you so much for your talented writings!

  4. My father was sixteen in 1939 when WWII broke out. He waited impatiently until his eighteenth birthday to enlist in the army. He was devastated when told that as an only child, he needed his parents' permission. Permission they refused. He got around his mother's strenuous objection by enlisting in the navy instead.

    I still have the postcards he sent to my grandmother from England before he was deployed to India.

    My father never spoke of his time during the war. Ever.

    I went aboard the USS Missouri when we were in Hawai'i last year and experienced how cramped those quarters were. I can imagine how much more tight things were on the ship Frank was on. Especially with only one shower in 6 days! Phew!

  5. Thank you so much for your positive comments. It's been quite a voyage for me as I write each post, and much of the stuff I write about is new to me. Don, from what I have found in the past, many war vets did not talk about their experiences. I am lucky enough to have many great first-hand accounts of those who served with Frank to know what he went through.