Chapter 11 W.W.II AUSTIN—MOBILE

The author, age 47, in Silver Spring, 1941

Pearl Harbor was struck December 7, 1941. Then W.W.II began. About 1921, after my service in W.W.I., the army sent me a Captain's Commission. It was renewed every five years. Now, a Lt. Colonel, I received an alert notice and so informed the commissioner of Customs that I would be called into military service. I received Special Orders 35, Third Corps Area, U.S. Army, Baltimore, February 10, 1942. Arrangements were made for Dr. Herbert Wollner to take my job while I was on active duty. Morris Kaplan was transferred to Baltimore as Chief Chemist there. He was very skeptical that Wollner could keep the organization going during my absence. He had less faith than I did. Anyway there was no alternative since Wollner was still a consultant to the Secretary of the Treasury and would continue in that capacity--two full time jobs.

In February 1942 I reported to Fort Meade, Maryland for orientation. This was not too far from our home in Silver Spring. While at Meade I was offered a job as G-1 (Personnel) on the staff of the Commanding General, Third Corps, U.S. Army. This would be a promotion to Colonel. It was my intention to serve only during the war. Had I accepted this staff position it would mean staying in the regular army. I also wished to be with the fighting troops instead of being a staff officer. This was another turning point in my life. There were many of them. Had I accepted the staff position and stayed in the army, undoubtedly I would have retired as a general officer. I was ordered to report to the Command and Staff Officers School at Fort Benning, Georgia, for thirteen weeks of intensive training in modern combat. It was rigorous. Day and night field maneuvers with troops, artillery, and simulated combat operations--written classroom examinations and field tests in command of troops. I passed. Our auto, a new Studebaker (the only new auto I ever bought) was stolen while parked in Columbus, Georgia. The thief drove it 100 miles away, took off the four new tires, and left the vehicle in an unused field. There was a federal freeze on tires. I sold the carcass.

My next assignment was in command of combat troops--but we never got overseas. Here is the story. Rumor circulated that Eleanor suggested to the President that Negro soldiers should take their share  in the war as combat troops; not just army vehicle drivers. White and black troops were still segregated. Accordingly, Tables of Organization was drawn up creating Air Base Security Battalions. Each battalion was to consist of 500 Negro enlisted men and 20 white officers. They were heavily armed with rifles, grenades, 75 mm. artillery, half tracks (steel armor like an army tank). Their mission was to protect any existing military air field; and then to move forward, as needed, occupy and defend a new landing field previously selected. This helped the army to advance into enemy territory. It was a good concept. Airplanes need protection and security against enemy fire and infiltrator's bombs. It was vital. There were ten of these battalions, starting from scratch, organized at Camp Swift Texas. General Order #73, par. 5, 3rd Army was the authority. They were put under the Army Air Corps. The organization of each battalion consisted of a Headquarters and Service Company, a Company A and a Company B. The battalion staff included the Commander, Executive Officer, Adjutant, and S-4. My orders came from Fort McClellan, Alabama, dated July 10, 1942. I was to organize the 9l5th Air Base Security Battalion and be its Commander.

On July 15 we received a cadre of 37 trained Negro non-commissioned officers from Fort Sill, Oklahoma. Within two months we received officers from various stations; and enlisted men, mostly inductees, from central Texas and Louisiana. We went into a six month intensive training period. A regular army officer, Colonel Gunby, had general supervision over the training of the ten Negro battalions.

Virginia outside of their home in Austin, 1943

Camp Swift had 20,000 white and 5,000 black troops in training at that time. We had many problems. First, about 20% of the men (draftees) had never been to school--were unable to write or sign the payroll. Our officers had to teach them how to write after drill hours. Some men were found to have an IQ equal to an eight year old boy. Second, men who knew how to drive a vehicle in civil life were assigned to army vehicles. But they were unable to read the manual for its care and operation. Third, men assigned from their civilian background, as cooks, knew very little about sanitation. Fourth, the Draft Boards sent us many of the less desirable men. Employers and farmers wanted to keep their better employees. Let the others go to war. We had no authority to verify this rumor. Nevertheless, with extra effort on the part of the officers, we hammered out a good striking force for the job assigned. We did our required 25 miles (in 8 hours) road march on foot, with heavy back pack. A horse had been assigned but I declined its use. I hiked with the men.

The 915th Battalion was considered the best trained and so was the first to move to the eastern seaboard for overseas assignment. A whole book could be written about my experiences at Camp Swift. It should have been written earlier. It's too late now--not enough time. Sometime during January or February 1943 a big military parade was scheduled in nearby Austin. Most of the 20,000 white troops were used. For reasons which I do not even now understand (except assignment to black troops), I was ordered to occupy the leading army vehicle, a jeep. A civilian was the other passenger. We introduced each other. His name: Lyndon B. Johnson. He told me he had been in Navy service in the Pacific but now was resigning his Commission to reenter politics. Had I known he would become President of the U.S., doubtless I would have given him a slip of paper with my full name and home address. With a group of army officers I did visit his large and unique Texas ranch. He was not there. He had already returned to his seat in Congress. Nor did I ever see him again, when after the war I returned to my civilian job, and we were both in Washington.

Before going to Camp Swift, I was able to bring the family by rail (did not have an auto) to Austin, where we rented a house. Our sons, Pomeroy and Bruce entered the excellent public schools there. Our home in Silver Spring was rented. After the 9l5th Air Base Security Battalion had completed its training we were ordered to travel by rail to Grenier Field, New Hampshire, March 8, 1943. We took over the defense of that air base. It was expected we might ship out from Boston for an overseas assignment--secret. Word reached me that our armies in North Africa had ample forces to launch a major attack on southern Europe, "the soft underbelly of the enemy," as Winston Churchill made public. General Mark Clark did not need or want any of the ten trained security battalions in Africa, where the attack on southern Europe was being organized.

915th officers at Dover. The author (CO) seated 4th from left

Next we moved to the air base at Dover, Delaware. While there I was honored to receive a commendation letter from the Commanding General of the First Air Force for the conduct and discipline of the battalion. The commendation belonged to all the officers and men, I replied. While at Dover, the Base Commander told me that a U.S. Senator wished me to call on him at his home. I declined. Another opportunity lost? The base commander thought so. Perhaps he wanted to check on our possible name (Williams) origin.

Next we moved to Republic Air Field, Farmingdale, Long Island, New York. Here we had to occupy tents in an area just outside the base proper. When our men went to the post exchange on the base they were refused admittance, because of their color. Immediately I went to the Base Commander with an ultimatum. If our Negro soldiers cannot have P.X. privileges, I will phone the Commanding General. Within 24 hours, trucks came into our area, built and stocked an adequate post exchange. I never saw such speed. For every year in command of the troops you had, a regular army officer told me later, should be counted as four years of military service.

All of the security battalions were now considered surplus in the light of the military situation overseas. So on September 1st the 915th was disbanded. Men and officers individually were assigned to other units of the Army. Before the final break-up, Staff Sergeant Henry D. Dawkins wrote a fourteen page History and Roster of the 915th. After the disbandment of the Air Base Security, I was transferred to the Air Service Command and assigned as Area Tactical Air Inspector, Mobile, Alabama. Brookley Field was a huge base, costing millions to build. The utilities, water, gas, and power were comparable to that required by a small city. Thousands of troops and over 10,000 civilians were employed. The inspection area covered five southern states. Brigadier General J. A. Mollison was in command; Colonel H. S. Rawlings, Executive. My boss was Colonel G. P. Winston, Air Inspector. I was the only infantry officer aboard. For living quarters I had a room in one of the officers' buildings; paid a fee, $12 for the "officers club," required of all officers on the post. After my family arrived we rented an apartment in Mobile, 208-B De Sales Street. City buses ran on frequent schedule from the Brookley field into the city. It was a tough assignment for any military organization to service, supply, modify, repair airplanes, and train crews for the thousands of military aircraft of various types used in the war. It was an equally tough job to inspect these organizations and certify them ready and qualified for service overseas. One man could not do it. Impossible. So I was allowed to select a team of twenty young officers, each well trained at Brookley Field in his own specialty--supply, maintenance, weapons, communications, radar, health, medicine, security, discipline, morale, etc. to form an inspection team.

We traveled by military airplane to the various area air fields where the units were located: Camp Campbell, Kentucky, Birmingham, Alabama, and others. Several days inspection was usually required before the team was able to render a report. At the conclusion of the inspection we informed the Unit Commanding Officer of our findings. Our report was final. The unit shipped out--or continued training. To me and the other officers on the team this was important and gratifying work. But these trips were few and far between. There were also several organizations at Brookley Field which required inspection before overseas duty.

I took some lessons in flying an airplane at a nearby commercial air field. How could I be a good inspector without knowing how to fly? I had to pay for the lessons. After a number of hours solo flying I passed--got a student's flying certificate, and still have it. I did not fly far away alone for fear of getting lost--followed the railroad tracks back to the airfield. Colonel Dunlop, a career air pilot said I was silly, at 50, to pilot an airplane. He had quit flying at 42 he said. The Air Force would not train a man over 26 to fly. Colonel Tom Cole, a professional engineer in civil life was in charge of all utilities at Brookley. After his organization had been inspected we became fast friends. I was his best man when he married a young W.A.C. Lieutenant at the Brookley Chapel. The Chaplain, Major U. V. White officiated. The Coles now live in Florida with their two grown children. Virginia and I keep in touch with Margaret and Tom, even now, after 32 years.

All organizations at Brookley Field were subject to periodic inspection by an officer on the staff of the Air Inspector. Two of my assignments were: (1) The large well equipped base hospital. On the day set for the inspection I was met by the C.O., Colonel J. R. Till, Jr., M.C. and his staff of medical specialists. I was then conducted throughout the various rooms, even the security of narcotic drugs. I gave the hospital an "excellent" rating. He operated the best hospital I had ever been in. (2) A battalion of WAC's. I inspected these women in uniform on parade and in their barracks. A medical officer, with my team, made the physical examination for venereal disease. Personally I knew nothing about this disease. In command of male troops, I usually observed this regular sex examination. Here I declined.

When Colonel Winston, the Air Inspector, retired (age) I became acting Air Inspector because of my seniority in grade. There was no promotion. Mollison wanted an officer whom he could control. Especially he did not want an army infantry officer. Some inspections were taboo. You do not inspect the officers' club house or their accounts. Rawlings would do it. I saw him (Rawlings) counting money collected from the slot machine at the clubhouse--no check-up by any inspector. Money flowed in from various sources--mainly from the civilian mess halls. General Mollison personally signed the contract with an outside firm to operate the restaurants to feed the thousands of civilian workers.

I was never allowed to see this contract or to inspect the eating places. I was convinced that truck loads of food were being shipped out for "black market" sales. Money flowed in. On several occasions, when in his office on military business, I had to wait sometimes an hour or more. He was on long distance telephone. Someone told me he had regular talks with stock brokers in New York. There were many honest officers at Brookley who knew something was rotten. Mollison had to split with his boss, Major General Ben Meyers, at Patterson Field, Dayton, Ohio. Occasionally “Benny" Meyers flew into Brookley Field. He was entertained like a visiting Monarch. It was wine, women, and spoils(?).

When he left the service, according to news accounts, he was under investigation for criminal activities. The Inspector General of the Army in Washington could have uprooted this corruption at Brookley and Patterson Fields easily. They had the legally trained investigators to do it. They were not permitted. The Army Air Force was pulling away from the U.S. Army to become (later) the U.S. Air Force. Now that the Air Force is separated from the Army, I hope that the situation with regard to honesty has improved. It should be an outstanding characteristic for officers in both departments. Otherwise our country is not secure militarily. It bothered me to know that thousands of our young men were losing their lives at the front, while a few high ranking officers were getting rich in the military service at home.

One day in the spring of 1945 I was called into the office of Chief of Personnel. Being my superior in grade, he started in by ridiculing me without making any charges. I was aghast. What had I done wrong? You must submit your resignation, he said. This I was quite willing to do, but not under pressure or on these obscure charges. He still refused to give a reason. I told him I'd consider it, and left his office. (It turned out that he was as much in the dark as I was.) In a phone conversation with Patterson Field, I learned that General Henry H. "Hap" Arnold, Chief of the Army Air Force, had received a letter from the Commissioner of Customs requesting my release from military service if it were possible. I was not aware of this letter. General Arnold had merely noted no objection (the war was coming to a close), provided I send in a resignation. In other words to make the first move. Now I was pleased for two reasons: Customs Bureau wanted me back in Washington, and I could escape from the inequities recently observed at Brookley. I was not a David and could not slay the giant Goliath.

I was ordered to report to the Separation Center, Fort Dix, New Jersey. Under Special Order No. 81, March 22, 1945, with leave and travel time added, I reverted to inactive status effective May 8th. By a rare coincidence the latter date also marked the end of World War II.

Virginia, I and the two boys, Pom and Bruce, moved into our home on Flower Avenue, Silver Spring, Maryland. My old job was still there. Wollner had left six months earlier to take a job with the American Standards Association. In the meantime, Ed Kenny, from our Baltimore laboratory, had been occupying my desk in the Bureau. It was good to be back. Shortly after my return I was nominated for membership in the Cosmos Club. I did not expect to be elected a member. Perhaps I got in via the side door. I enjoyed the fellowship there for many years.

Oh! I married a farmer's daughter In fact there were two in a row. 
Now I've beautiful granddaughters It's what was expected, you know.