By the spring of 1918 the 353rd Infantry began to feel quite at home in Camp Funston. The men were now well acquainted. Improvement added immensely to the comfort of the quarters. Every Company had its victrola, and most Companies a small collection of books. Organizations vied with each other in their efforts to beautify the Camp. Trees were being planted; sidewalks were in the process of construction. The Machine Gun Company had hauled in sod with their carts and were planning a lawn about their barracks; line Companies, not so fortunate in transportation were sowing grass seed. Of course training was still strenuous but the conditioning process had done its work well. Everybody was feeling fit and enjoying life.
To this home-like atmosphere was added a feeling of security; immediate service seemed out of question. The transfers had left only skeleton organizations and replacements were not yet in sight. And then, too, reports kept coming in that ships would not be available for a long time to come. "It looks as if we are going to do our bit in Camp Funston," was the general opinion among the officers and men.
On April 27, Colonel Reeves called a meeting of Company Commanders at 2 p. m. The hour itself signified something of unusual importance. When the Company Commanders arrived, Sergeant Major Davis and the non-commissioned staff carefully retired out of hearing distance; the doors were shut and the roll called. This was a secret meeting. The Colonel's message was brief and to the point. "We're going over soon; make your plans accordingly." To these Company Commanders this message was more impressive than the Declaration of the War had been several months before. By some strange psychological process the announcement of news like this carries the individual directly to scenes of activity. All of the intermediate steps are erased and he stands in a moment face to face with the realities of future months. The Chronicler wrote, "The men were more serious than happy; more determined than eager." Not a word leaked out but the enlisted men read the news in the faces of their Company Comamnders as soon as the meeting was over.
Startling changes in the Training Plan and the routine of camp added to the intensity of the situation. The big maneuver was called off; and the Regiment was ordered to the rifle range to stay until every man had finished the qualification course. Non-commissioned officers were sent to the Detention Camp to drill the future replacement of the Regiment. Leaves and passes were allowed only to men whose relatives could not come to camp, and four days was the limit. Excitment ran high and rumors flourished.
On May 18th a copy of this War Department telegram reached Regimental Headquarters:
In his endorsement, General Wood added, "Officers and enlisted men will be required to work without regard to hours in order to prepare organization for shipment." When this telegram was received, the Regiment was encamped at the target range five miles away. Most of the non-commissioned officers were on detached service. Of course, the exact date of entrainment was not given but passenger cars were being spotted by the scores on the switch above Camp Funston. The Regiment must get ready on a few hours notice to move with the Division.
Orders came thick and fast, but directions were vague. "What are we to take?" was the first question. In a conference with Captain Piatt the following classification was received: "Light Baggage, Heavy Baggage, and Freight." The dividing line between the members of this classification varied with succeeding conferences. When the G. I. Cans had all been labeled and numbered as Heavy Baggage they were ordered shipped as Freight. In the meantime these same G. I. Cans had been filled with valuable baggage which could never go as Freight. The resulting confusion was sometimes embarrassing as well as inconvenient. For these G. I. Cans had been packed with forbidden articles, such as athletic equipment and officers' boots. When the boxes had been made, painted, stenciled, packed, measured, weighed and nailed up, the problem arose of "turning in" the surplus accumulation of many months. After it had all been turned in several times there was still Government property hanging on the walls, in the store rooms, and many other places that had been carefully policed.
The main task these days was equipping the men. Truck loads were hauled out to the rifle range and truck loads were hauled back to be "turned in." The Supply Company insisted on receipts and Company Commanders signed wifh fear and trembling. Supply Sergeants were the busiest men in the Camp these days. They emptied barrack bags and "turned in" what they considered disallowed for over-seas service and substituted according to Equipment "C." Sizes ran odd as usual and when the men returned Supply Sergeants were the most unpopular men in the Regiment. But this was war, and "Orders were Orders."
Officers, too, were required to complete their equipment immediately. Lists of articles seemed to vary with the stock of different business concerns; folding chairs, rubber bath tubs, folding lanterns, linen collars were rated as essential to life in the trenches. American officers would associate with foreign officers and they must maintain creditable appearance. It was said that a British officer standing in the mud to his waist was, nevertheless, a gentleman from his waist up. And so the officers of the 353rd Infantry spared no pains or money to complete their equipment which was destined for the store houses of Gievres until long after the Armistice was signed.
These matters of equipment and baggage were by no means all of the difficulties that had to be overcome in breaking Camp for France. Alien enemies had to be hunted out of the personnel and "conscientious objectors" transferred to other organizations. Those unfit for over-seas service must be examined and sent to Remedial Battalions. Not a few cases of Tachycardia, epilepsy, and even broken arches and rheumatism developed under the strain of actual departure. Time was well on now toward the end of the month; pay and muster rolls were due; passenger lists must be ready upon arrival at the Port of Embarkation, but these could be prepared on the train. When the final police was completed, every officer and man was anxious to clear out. Life in France might be more dangerous but it could not be more strenuous.
Eight trains were allotted to the 353rd Infantry, approximately one train for two companies. Loading began on May 25th; strictest secrecy was enjoined upon all; under no consideration was any one to breathe the name of his organizations or the Camp where it had trained; no letters were to be mailed from the train. In spite of all these warnings and precautions, crowds were at the stations to cheer the soldiers on their way and when no one was looking some appreciative American girl would carefully collect all out-going mail. The route ran through Kansas City, St. Louis, Frankfort, Cleveland, and Buffalo to Hoboken, New Jersey. This was the first trip across the country for many of the men. Intensive cultivation was on in the country and cities were doubly busy with the rush of war-time industry. "A man can afford to fight for a country like this," was the growing conviction as the train rolled on.
The climax of interest came with the trip down the Hudson from Hoboken to Long Island station. Here were the things all had heard about: the tallest building in the world; Brooklyn Bridge; war ships--the activity expressive of the life of the nation's greatest port.
Evening brought the 353rd Infantry to Camp Mills. Life here proved to be a continuation of the last days of Camp Funston; corporals checked and rechecked each man's equipment. Final inspection still revealed many articles lacking. But there was no time to wait longer. Pay rolls had to be computed and passenger lists completed. Twenty-four-hour passes to New York City furnished fine diversion. Life in the metropolis was fascinating to these men of the Middle-West. There was a great deal of satisfaction in viewing the
city in uniform. Consciousness of rural origin faded out and the men were able to look at the sights as hard as they pleased without attracting attention.
In the midst of these final preparations came the word that General Wood had been ordered to return to Camp Funston. This news cast more gloom into the camp than the reports of submarine activities. Officers and men felt in his transfer from the division the loss of a personal friend as well as an able commander. But it was with a feeling of pride that they read his farewell on the bulletin boards of the camp:
General Winn assumed command and on June 3, 1918, embarkation began--the First and Second Battalions went abroad H. M. S. Karmala; the Third Battalion, Headquarters Company and Regimental Headquarters, H. M. S. Pyrrhus; Supply Company and Machine Gun Company on H. M. S. Caronia. Each man called his name as he walked past the Embarkation Officer up the gang plank. In order to expedite the loading of the ship, the men were sent on different routes when they reached deck. Consequently all were mixed in the holds called " compartments" below. It seemed impossible for the required numbers to get into the space allotted, much less to live there. But officers and men must stay below until the ship was completely loaded. Shouts of "Air," "Let me out," came up through the hatches. "Stay down," was the order. Every man was soon busy fixing his hammock to the hooks in the ceiling and adjusting his life belt, assuring himself of whatever comfort and safety was available for the voyage.
The next morning, June 4, 1918, found the ships still at the piers. "Could it be that the submarines have us bottled up?" Nine ships had been reported sunk off the Jersey coast the day before. "No, the firemen have gone on a strike." Unless volunteer firemen could be secured from among the soldiers the transport fleet might be tied up indefinitely. Several railroad and Great Lakes firemen stepped out of the ranks and volunteered their services. By 1:30 p. m. full steam was up and the voyage was begun.
The convoy included one British cruiser, several submarine chasers and two sea planes. In a few minutes the Statue of Liberty was out of sight. When would we see her again! As soon as the ship had cleared the harbor the men came up on deck. The few English-speaking men of the crew were busy answering questions. The letters H. M. S. meant "His Majesty's Ship." "Yes, sir, she's a British ship." She had been in the India freight service. Her true character, "Tramp Ship " came out a little later. Port side was on the right, star board on the left as you faced the direction in which the ship was going. It was hard to get the decks all straight. The crew was made up of Portuguese and East Indians. But this was not the time to be wandering around over the ship. If ever, now, Safety First.
The lives of all depended upon strict compliance with ship instructions. No lights were to be shown at night. No rubbish of any kind was to be thrown overboard. No smoking on deck after dark. In addition to the regular guards there would be submarine guards, life boat, and raft crews. Officers took turn in the compartments. Abandon-ship drill, when each organization took to its own station on deck, came every day and then appeared regular drill, physical inspection, and bathing schedules. This trip over the sea promised to be more busy than interesting.
When morning came land was out of sight. It was cool. The ships in checkered formation were taking a far northern course. Location was still either a secret or a mystery; but those who kept the late watches declared that there was no darkness. The more imaginative spoke no longer of "Over There" but of the land of the Midnight Sun. Only two other ships came in sight during the voyage. Submarine guards promptly reported them to the bridge. Rifle men stood ready to open fire and the gunner "aft" seemed anxious to try out his depth bomb. He declared that if he could place his shot within a hundred yards of the periscope, the danger of that particular submarine would be over. But these were friendly ships; not a submarine came in sight. Nevertheless, everyone breathed more easily when the British escorts of seven torpedo destroyers came out on the morning of June 14, to convoy the fleet down through the Irish sea to Liverpool.
This was said to be the " danger zone"; occasional masts sticking out of the water supported the statement. But here was Ireland on the right, Scotland and England on the left. Many a man caught his first glimpse of the land of his father. It was no use to try to keep down any longer. Evening brought the transport fleet into the harbor. Ferry loads of civilians cheered and welcomed the soldiers, but the city was dark and there was still one more night to spend aboard ship.
Sunday morning, June 16th, debarkation began. Each company went directly to its station in the aban donship order. Anxiety added, to the results of drill, cleared the ship in a few minutes. A short march brought the companies to the waiting trains. Loading the
trains was accomplished in a few minutes; groups of thirty occupied the coaches. Each man received a message from the King as he entered. And the little train with more exertion than speed wound its way through Manchester, Sheffield, and Oxford to Winchester, the first Capital of England. Along the way women and children and old men waved welcome to the shouting soldiers. Whenever the train stopped groups of children yelled "Pennies" at the top of their voices. At first it seemed difficult for these war-worn civilians to understand the enthusiasm of the Americans. But in a moment they read the significance of their coming to the common cause; and the welcome equalled the heartiness of the greeting. The train pulled up unexpectedly. It was still dark outside but the march to Camp Winnal-Down must be begun at once. The camp was four miles away and the packs were heavy. One man mused, "Good thing my feet are flat or this pack would sink me through to China." The guide mentioned rather incidentally that Winnal-Down was a "Rest Camp." These words traveled back through the weary ranks in an instant, and the step quickened without command.
"Rest Camp! if ever words expressed the needs of a longing soul, these are the words," repeated a weary doughboy as he gazed fixedly ahead and bent a little farther into the straps of his pack. Under this spur every man reached the objective in time for breakfast. The long train ride followed by the march to camp over the unyielding roads brought back appetites that had been lost on the ocean. "Top Critters," who knew the insides of soldiers, directed with a great deal of satisfaction. "Make it snappy, men, for breakfast." Down at the mess hall a few minutes later all eyes turned on him for an explanation. This piece of bacon and gravy, this bit of oatmeal and these few swallows of coffee, with no chances for seconds, could never be meant for breakfast. Meanwhile, Company Commanders had been warned to explain the situation to the men. Food shortage was a reality; submarines had taken their toll of British shipping. Every particle of the ground, even under the eaves of buildings was under cultivation. The people were suffering; it was up to the American soldiers to "carry on" and they did it without another word of complaint.
On the second day, drill schedules appeared. Evidently there was some mistake about the new Rest Camp. Battalions marched out until they came to open fields. On every hand were signs of the struggle that England was making for her life. Hospitals overflowed with sick and wounded. Youthful Britishers were learning the mechanism of artillery drill. Aeroplanes circled high overhead. The American soldier remembered the recent statement issued by Sir Douglas Haig: "Our backs are to the wall; every Englishman must fight to the last." It was plain now; there could be no Rest Camp in such a crisis of the Allied Cause.
The effect on the morale of the English people of the recent reverses combined with food shortage was overwhelming. Even the soldiers were discouraged. A sergeant in charge of the mess hall
told the men, "We are licked. I was over when that German drive began. There's no use trying to hold 'em. We are licked, I tell you, and you'll be licked, too. You should have been here long before this." Orders followed forbidding conversations with the discouraged Tommies. Aside from this unfortunate incident relations between Americans and British were cordial.
Camp restrictions, however, were severe. Some Yanks immediately preceding the arrival of the 353rd Infantry had torn up the town in Winchester. Staid Englishmen told how these uncouth men threw a lariat around the neck of the Statue of King Arthur, "Indeed they were a boisterous lot!" As a result of their hilarity, passes to Winchester could be had for groups only and an officer must be in charge of each group. No one was allowed to go to London. "This was not a touring party." Thus were the Americans, again impressed with obligations and duties of a soldier.
But the men could improve the time in writing letters. It was impossible, however, to write all that happened; and the things that were most important, the censor would be sure to mark out. Instructions forbade the following as "dangerous information."1, Place in which letters were written; 2, Organizations, numbers and movements of troops; 3, Morale and physical conditions of our own or Allied Troops; 4, Details regarding supplies. What was there that could be safely said!
Hardly had the Regiment become settled in camp and accomplished a satisfactory police when orders came to move to Southhampton on June 21st. New scenes and new conditions flashed before the mind these days like the changes on a moving picture screen. Fascination of new experiences was fast growing on the doughboys and they welcomed the order with "Where do we go from here?" Toward dusk all went aboard for France. It was a fine-looking ship, built for speed; she was long and slender and set well down into the water. Smoke rolled out of two stacks. The captain told of her speed and related with pride how he had rammed a hostile submarine. Some of the pieces of the craft were on exhibit. His story was not very cheering to the Americans; and the Britisher turned away discouraged with the foreigners' appreciation of his humor. However, France was just across the channel, and this little trip would be something of a moonlight excursion.
Another disillusionment was in store for the men of the 353rd Infantry. Never before had they been so crowded together. There were no sleeping accommodations. That was little hardship, for the violent rocking of the ship soon caused all to seek convenient rather than comfortable quarters. Men who had boasted of weathering the Atlantic now yielded to the humiliating inclination imposed by this little excursion across the channel. Suddenly submarine chasers swarmed around the ship. A sailor upon the bridge is signalling to one of the chasers; how fast he delivers his message. It doesn't seem difficult for him. Darkness begins to set in, and instead of wig-wag flags, blinkers are used. It suddenly sinks in that there must
be something important going on, else why this continued exchange of messages? At the same moment, the ship makes a quick turn, heading back over the course just run, with full steam up. The chaser ahead draws up, and remains. The blackness of night has settled. One after another long streaks of light are brought into play, irregularly criss-crossed as some lead toward the skies while others stretch out over the water. In the distance is visible, at regular intervals, a burst of flame followed by the thunderous boom of the naval guns. An attack is on; evidently submarines. Interest increased as the ship again put out to sea while the excitement of the battle was at its highest. These troops were needed at the front; the men of the Navy would see that they landed safely "Over There."
Early morning brought the first glimpse of France; the good ship landed at Le Havre. Directly astern a large hospital transport was being loaded with allied wounded. With their long slender bayonets fixed on their rifles, poilus walking guard down on the docks, looked invincible. An uphill march to another Rest Camp five miles away began immediately. German prisoners of war stopped their work to gaze at the passing columns, and then fell-to again as if they were glad of their present occupation. In the city, crowds of French children followed, crying, "Biskwee," "Penny," "Souvenir." The new comers passed out their pennies and hard bread in spite of the remonstrances of the elders looking on from the curbings.
Experiences in this new Rest Camp banished for all time from the minds of the men illusions as to real significance of such institutions. On the following morning mess sergeants prepared a cold lunch to be taken along in the evening. Another march back to Le Havre and all were loaded in French cars. Each car was labeled, "Hommes 40, Cheveaux 8." By combining the situation with their meager knowledge of the French language, the men gathered the meaning of this label and accepted it in the same terms--C'est la guerre." In a few minutes, "ba-ba-ma-ma-a-a-" came from one end of the long train to the other. We were off!
No one, not even the Train Commander, knew the destination. For hours and hours the train rolled on through Rouen, within sight of Eifel Tower, through Troye, to the Reynel Training Area of the American Expeditionary Forces. A month had been spent in making the trip. More than 5,000 miles had been covered. Another month and these men from the heart of America would be on the fighting line in France.
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