by Bruce A. Smith
Alan W. Smith was my father, and every night of my youth he put me and my sister to bed and told us stories of his life. As we lay in nearby bunks, Dad gave us alternating “back-squatches,” and told us captivating, true tales from his life. His favorites – and mine – were his “army stories” from WW II.
Born in Brooklyn, my dad loved the army. He thought WWII was a great adventure, sometimes calling it just that, although he would also mention that “it helped that no one was shooting at me.”
Nowadays, child psychologists might cringe at hearing of young children listening to stories of war just before they fall asleep, but I loved them. My dad was a great storyteller, and he was absolutely authentic as he told them.
Here is my account of what my father told me. I write them because he is gone, having passed away in 2007 of a heart attack. He was 90. But he is much beloved by his grandchildren and their children, and I think they would like to know this part of their “Ba-Ba.”
Additionally, I hope my account will honor his personal sacrifices and his efforts to defend freedom.
Dad was drafted into the Army in October 1941, about two months before Pearl Harbor. He was 24-years old. Three years before he had graduated from Lehigh University, class of 1938.
Dad’s first story was of peeling potatoes in the mess hall of a barracks at Fort Dix, New Jersey, listening to his Dodgers play the Yankees in the World Series.
“I had tickets to that game, too!” he anguished. “My father got two tickets from a guy at work – and he had to give away my ticket….”
Dad was a private at Fort Dix, and was completing his basic training. Afterwards, he went to Camp Upton on Long Island, in Yaphank, New York. There he met some of his Sigma Nu fraternity brothers from Lehigh, who had just been commissioned as officers via the Officer Candidate School, or OCS.
“You should do it, Al,” they told him. “OCS is easy, and being an officer is a lot better than being a private.”
Those were words my father embraced for the rest of his life – always pick your best deal when the opportunity presents itself, especially when the alternatives are unpleasant.
So, Dad applied for OCS and became a “90-day wonder” in the parlance of the day. He was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant, worked briefly as a 1st Lieutenant, and then became a Captain. He was stationed in a variety of places all over the United States.
I forget the exact order of his deployments, but here is what I remember.
Early on he was stationed at the old Santa Anita racetrack in Los Angeles. By this time, he was already assigned to an Ordnance battalion, which is a unit that fixes and builds things. Dad used to joke that he was probably placed in that unit because the Army thought he might have mechanical capacities, since the Lehigh football team was called the “Engineers.”
But dad was a business major, and he loved the corporate life, which is what the army became for him. In effect, dad spent the war as a mid-level manager of mechanics. His guys fixed tanks, jeeps and artillery pieces.
But at Santa Anita they built barracks for the incoming tide of Japanese folks being assigned to internment camps, such as Manzanita, California. Santa Anita would be their first stop after being pulled away from their homes.
Oddly, dad displayed very little emotion about the tragic nature of his work at Santa Anita, which was also the home of Seabiscuit, the iconic racehorse of the 1930s. Dad told us cheerfully of sleeping one night in Seabiscuit’s stall.
“They let all the GIs get a chance to spend the night in his stall – one a night. It was great – nice and warm.”
But most nights my father was billeted in the cushy home of a family in nearby Burbank. There, he had the pleasure of picking fresh oranges off a tree in his backyard. Plus, the lady of the house made him eggs and bacon for breakfast every morning.
But dad had one night at Santa Anita that tested his leadership abilities.
“It had been raining like crazy for days and the barracks we were building began to flood. We were afraid that they were going to wash away…I was the duty officer, so I got called out and had to take charge.”
I got the sense that my dad was really scared of having so much responsibility, and I never heard how the situation resolved. Maybe the rain just stopped and my dad simply waited for the waters to recede. That would be his style – if you don’t know what to do, maybe the best thing to do is to do nothing until you know what to do.
After California, my dad was stationed in Texarkana, Texas, just on the border of Texas and Arkansas, as he often told us. There, at the Red River Weapons Depot, dad got more training in ordnance, and by the end of the war he knew quite a bit about hydraulics, metal workings, lathes and drill presses. He also gained a working knowledge of automotive repair, but he never worked on any of his family vehicles, and he never taught me a thing about cars except how to drive them.
Reflecting his good fortune as being the son of a very successful clothing salesman, dad had a personal car to travel from Santa Anita to Texarkana.
“But I had to watch the gas very carefully. The government was issuing gas coupons by then, and there wasn’t any extra to get to Texarkana.”
Gas was twelve cents a gallon, and his ’36 Chevy got about 15 miles to a gallon.
On the way to Texarkana, dad spent Christmas by himself in a little Mexican restaurant where he was the only customer. He was in uniform, and was welcomed into the holiday gathering of the folks who ran the diner.
After Texarkana, he was stationed at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland, where he spent a lot of time. He pronounced it like most people, Aberdeen Proving Grounds, with an “s.” Although he spent a lot of time there, I don’t recall a lot of stories taking place there.
After Aberdeen, dad went to Europe, being stationed in the south of England in preparation for D-Day in June 1944.
Dad talked a lot about England, and how he got a special talk from some British official about British ways – that folks in England can seem stand-offish because the island is so small and densely packed that Brits put up a stiff exterior.
Dad also never warmed to British beer, nor does he like American brew, preferring rum, gin and red wines. He also never developed a fondness for British food, although he didn’t eat much of it since the Brits didn’t have much of it for themselves.
In mid-August, 1944, dad shipped out to France. I believe he landed in the Caen area of Normandy, and moved quickly up the “Red Ball Express” highway to Belgium. There they took up positions near Bruges, Belgium, behind the 3rd Army and other American units.
I don’t remember exactly what dad’s unit was called specifically – perhaps it was the 401st Ordnance Battalion – but in the fall of 1944 they relocated to Liege, Belgium, near the German border.
They were stationed in an old factory that had been partially bombed, and my dad’s unit converted it into a huge repair facility.
Then one night in December 1944, my dad’s company received orders to load-up pronto, putting all of their repair equipment, such as engine hoists, tools, and welding gear, onto their flat-beds and haul ass to the rear. As the commanding officer, my dad was the last one out of the area and he told us many times how he sat in his jeep driving down the “strasse,” seeing his column of a couple dozen trucks in front of him and hearing a German bomber fly overhead, dropping a big one on the factory and blowing it to smithereens.
“Boy, dad, that was close,” I would shout.
“It sure was, son. It sure was.”
That was my dad’s encounter with the famous Battle of the Bulge – the German offensive that nearly cut the Allies in two.
Dad’s unit re-positioned itself in a Belgian village called Fontaine l’Eveque, which is due south of Brussels. There, Dad’s crew re-established their repair depot, and watched a new element of WWII develop – the buzz bombs.
“They’d fly right overhead. You could hear the sputz, sputz, sputz of the engine, which is why they were called buzz bombs. They flew very slowly, and weren’t too dangerous when you could hear them, but when you couldn’t you knew one was about to drop near you.”
Dad was fascinated by the buzz bombs, called a V-1 rocket by the Wehrmacht, and he talked a lot about them. Most of them were aimed at London, but one landed near my dad’s encampment. Dad told us of one GI who heard the buzz stop and ran out of his tent to see where it was going to hit and saw it was heading his way, so he jumped into the nearest ditch he saw – the company latrine.
“Any port in a storm, I suppose,” my dad said with a smirk, ‘but he stunk for days.”
Dad was also intrigued with the V-2 rocket, the very dangerous weapon from the laboratories of Dr. Wernher “Willy” Von Braun, later to become the head of rocket development for the United States military. The V-2 were launched from mobile units in the Belgian and Dutch countryside, and posed a serious threat to London.
During this time, my dad’s unit began receiving German prisoners of war, especially any who had mechanical experience.
“The Germans loved it,” my dad said. “They got three meals a day and a warm bed, and no one was shooting at them. They were good workers and we never had to worry about them escaping or anything.”
My father’s stay in Fontaine l’Eveque was brightened further after Belgium was completely liberated and he could travel safely to Brussels, where he visited his aunt and niece. Since my dad was an officer, he requisitioned a jeep every Sunday to go for a family dinner, and his Aunt Alice, who grew up in Ridgewood, New Jersey, had married a Belgian guy in the early 1930s and was living in the city.
As I understand family history, their daughter Marthe was born in Belgium, and even though they tried to move back to the United States before the war started, American immigration wouldn’t let Alice into the country with Marthe because the kid was a Belgian national and not an American citizen.
“Not without my daughter,” was the story I heard when she was asked by family why she didn’t get out of Europe in time.
So Aunt Alice, her husband Mike and their daughter Marthe stayed in Belgium. However, Uncle Mike died of a stroke in early 1944, and Aunt Alice and Marthe had to live on their own in Brussels.
Their experience was rough. They lived across the street from Gestapo headquarters, and Aunt Alice never spoke in public because her French, even though she was completely fluent, was laced with an American accent and she knew that someone might turn her into the Germans.
Cousin Marthe was a kid and spoke as the native Belgique she is. In fact, she still speaks her English with a French accent.
Both Dad and Marthe describe the happy times when they’d meet for Sunday dinner.
“The first time your father came, I remember it so well,” Marthe told me. “I went running out the door to greet him, and I jumped up to hug him and almost knocked him over. Remember – I was a little kid and very skinny and he was an American officer and tall!”
My dad brought fresh vegetables from American army stores.
“It was the first time in two years I had seen a fresh tomato or onion, or any green vegetables,” Marthe said. “And the time he brought a turkey for Thanksgiving –whew – it was the first time I had ever seen a turkey!”
Dad also joined them for the V-E Day celebrations in May 1945.
“We drove around the Hotel DeVille in my jeep, along with thousands of other people, and Marthe and Aunt Alice and lots of people were sitting in the jeep and shouting and singing, and waving their arms – it was great. I just kept blasting my horn as we drove. We did it for hours.”
After Germany’s surrender, Dad was stationed in Munich, and his unit took over the remains of the BMW plant. There they began to restore the factory and assemble Volkswagens – putting German-designed cars on the road to help bolster the local economy.
Dad’s unit was quickly joined by 6,000 German prisoners of war, all of them former machinists and engineers.
“We wanted to give them something to do so they wouldn’t be robbing everyone and causing trouble. They were also invited to bring their wives and kids, so we soon had a large company town in downtown Munich. They even had a movie theater.”
Dad’s job at this point was to supervise contracts with local German suppliers, such as for wood and nails. He was assisted by a 20-year-old German woman, named Irene Steuchert, who spoke English fluently. Her father had been an outspoken opponent of the Nazis and had been imprisoned after losing his professorship at a local college. Irene apparently escaped the Nazis’ wrath, and because of her language skills, and possibly her father’s political trustworthiness, she was invited by the American army to translate for my father.
Irene and my father worked very well together, and she became a life-long family friend. She even traveled with my mother through Scandinavia when my dad didn’t feel like “jaunting across Europe.”
In the winter of 1945-46, the German people suffered mightily due to a lack of coal, food and other supplies. My dad’s unit was tasked with rebuilding a rail line to the coal fields of Czechoslovakia, which greatly reduced the suffering of many people in Bavaria.
In the spring of 1946, my dad’s father had a heart attack. Although he survived, my grandmother asked her son to come home.
“We need you back here, Alan,” my grandmother said.
My dad was very torn; he loved the work he was doing in Germany, and he saw the value of it.
“I would have probably stayed in the Army if I had stayed in Germany,” he told me.
But he returned to Brooklyn.
“I remember sailing up the Narrows, seeing the blossoms on the trees at Saint Albans Hospital. It was a warm, beautiful day in March ’46.”
Shortly after he got home to Avenue I in Flatbush, his father had a second heart attack and died. Grandpa Smith was 61 when he passed.
“He smoked two packs a day,” my father mused. My dad never smoked a single cigarette in his entire life, and he constantly espoused that I do the same.
In the next year, Dad and his army buddies, many of whom were also his fraternity brothers, began going on dates with gals who enjoyed large group gatherings. Often, half of the couples were on a blind date arranged by one of the buddies. On one such occasion, the Yale-Columbia football game in 1946, my father met my mother, Frances.
In January 1948, they were married in Worcester, Massachusetts during a raging blizzard. In the fall of 1949 I joined their company, and my sister Barbara arrived in 1953.
The picture below shows my father, sitting on the left, at Jones Beach, circa 1938. Lounging to the right is one of his Brooklyn buddies, Julius Bunin. The photo comes via the courtesy of Bruce Bishop, whose father Cal, was another of the Brooklyn bunch. These three amigos were life-long friends, and I thoroughly enjoyed our combined family gatherings at Jones throughout my childhood.
Bruce A. Smith