page 2 of 14
2- Joining the Army
Please report errors to: email@example.com.
How did you first become involved with the army?
The army became involved with me, because in 1941 the draft law was put into effect. Everybody age eighteen to about thirty-six or later, even age forty, had to sign up at the draft board. I was at Cal at the time, as a student, for about six or eight months after high school. I tried to get into the Marines, and found out that I had flat feet and that I had an overbite. I told the colonel, he rejected me, and I told the colonel, I didn't want to kick them or bite them. I just wanted to shoot at them. But he wouldn't let me go in. I was awfully small at the time.
What were you eventually classified as to be trained?
Well, I went into the army at a time, in 1943, in early April of 1943. I went to the draft board and said I am ready to go. So in effect, I was volunteering, but I just went in with all the rest of the guys who were in our fraternity at Cal which was just cleaned out - closed up the house. I went in as a Buck Private.
What were your parent's reactions to you enlisting in the army?
Well, I had two brothers. We were all in the service at the same time. In fact, the day that I went on the train to Monterey, when I was drafted, my older brother was called in, and we were both on the same train going to the Presidio of Monterey, which was pretty hard on my parents. However, not so hard on me, because I played poker on the train all the way to Monterey. It is like the little boy who is lost in the department store. He knows where he is, but his parents don't know where he is.
Did you have a lot of friends that were drafted or enlisted with you?
All of my friends went into the service.
Did you want to be in the army? Were you happy or sad about it?
The United States was at war. We were attacked by the Japanese December 7th, 1941. We have never seen a country, our country, as united as they were at that time. So you just knew that you were going into the service. Everybody went in. I went in when I was eighteen and three months. Kind of close to the age of the students at Urban High. We just did it. You had no, there were very few conscientious objectors, or people who tried to dodge the draft. We just went into the service.
So you weren't scared at all?
No. I would rather have been in college, but as it turned out, after I went through basic training in the army for three months, we had a classification test, and they took most of these kids from college that they had drafted, and sent them back to college. I was chosen to go to the University of Cincinnati for a year in an Army Specialized Training Corp. Army Specialized Training Program, ASTP. We were taking engineering at the University of Cincinnati, and we were supposed to go through there, and then get our commission. But that never happened.
Before you enlisted, were you aware about world issues? What did you know?
I knew that we followed Hitler in Germany, starting in with Poland, taking over Poland, and Czechoslovakia. We knew that the Jews were being treated poorly in Europe. We didn't know about concentration camps at that time. In fact we hardly knew about them until the day we went into the first camp.
Do you mind going through all of your prewar experiences in the army?
At first, when I went in the army, we went for classification at the Presidio of Monterey, where I was classified, and sent to Fresno for basic training in the Air Corp. Originally, I was classified to be a rear-gunner mechanic. Then after I took these tests at Fresno, I was qualified to go back to College.
As I said, we went to the University of Cincinnati - not everyone. You had to score well. From there, we went to Stanford for three months for classification. Then I went to the University of Cincinnati in the summer, or the fall, of '43. That was run like a little West Point. Very strict. If anybody got a C in any subject, they were washed out. So you had to get A's and B's, in order to stay in school. So I was there for a year.
Then the Battle of the Bulge came about in the late fall of 1944. They just washed out all of these programs and all of any schooling that any military people were in, with the idea of sending us right overseas, because this was a very critical time of the War. From Cincinnati, I was sent to Camp Breckinridge, Kentucky. I was assigned to a fourteenth armored infantry battalion as a medic. The reason they assigned me as a medic, was because I had put down on my entrance into the army that I was in pre-med at Cal for two quarters. So that qualified me to be a medic. Well I certainly didn't have any training in that at that point. After Camp Breckinridge, I was sent to Fort Jackson, at Columbia, South Carolina. I was assigned to the 515th Medical Clearing Company. That is the outfit I went overseas with. That is where I took my training and was assigned as a surgical technician.
From Fort Jackson, we went to New York in January of '45, early January of '45. We boarded a ship, the name of which I can't remember. It was a liberty ship, to go to Europe. It took twenty days from New York to Le Havre, France which they do in five days or four days now. The reason we did that, because we zigzagged on the ocean, to avoid being hit by German submarines.
At that point, did you think you were going to be in heavy battle, or did you think WWII was coming to a close?
No, we didn't know anything. We just didn't know anything. We knew the War was going on in Germany. The D-Day, was June 7th 1944. So the allies are already into France, and pushing the Germans back. The meantime, the Russians were coming from the other direction. There is nothing more than bewilderment of arriving in France, and going to Camp Lucky Strike, which was a "repo-depo" they called it. The replacement depo.
So our company was there during the early days of January '45. We thought it was pretty rough living, because there was snow on the ground and we were living in tents. There was no food supply. The only thing that came through, for one solid week, were canned hams. That's all we ate, and coming from a Jewish background, I had never eaten a ham. We had ham for breakfast, lunch, and dinner for one week. Plus what we could go out and scrounge around the countryside - get some eggs and some bread from a bakery in France and supplement our meals.
Did you experience any anti-Semitism while you were in the military?
No, very little. Once in awhile you would get somebody who was pretty ignorant - make some jokes about the Jews. I just kind of ignored that. It was not worth fighting.
Medical Training & Overseas
Can you describe the nature of your training to be a medic?
Well it was training to be a medic in our medical clearing company. Clearing company is the second line behind the front lines of the war. The aid men who were attached to infantry outfits, would take these poor guys who were shot and get them transferred back to a clearing company. From a clearing company, it would go back to an evacuation hospital. From there, they would send them back to the states, or put them in a hospital. So we were kind of the second line of defense.
A clearing company was supposed to be able to take and do emergency work on people who were shot. So I was trained under some doctors there to assist in all kind. We had practice training on dogs. As much as people don't like the idea of using dogs, it really helped train us to work on human beings. They were very, very careful with the dogs. They didn't sacrifice them. They would operate on them, and as they would surgically do with a human being and get them back to life and take care of them. That was the kind of training we had, and it was lectures and lectures and lectures, and learning to be a surgical technician. Which I didn't have enough of, because I did a lot more than being a surgical technician once we got into the concentration camps.
Did you get any training with other kinds of warfare or with guns?
Yeah, the only time I had, was in the Air Corp, when I was in basic training. They sent us out to a rifle range, and they gave us a submachine gun. I was down on the ground shooting this submachine gun at targets, with live ammunition. There was a young shavetail and a second lieutenant standing behind me, and he said, "Colvin you're doing that wrong." And so I turned around like this, with the machine gun, and he screamed, "Get that man off the firing range. Don't ever let him get near a gun again." That went in my records. So they kept me away from guns. The closest I got back to that was a hypodermic needle. Being a medic in the army, you were not supposed to carry guns - the Geneva Convention. But most of us had guns, pistols, when we got to Germany.
Can you explain the Geneva Convention?
Came out of World War I, where it was an agreement on the armistice of November, 11th 1918. That it demanded good treatment for prisoners, good treatment, better treatment for officers, and no torture of prisoners - and also good medical treatment. And included in that was that no medics would carry arms or ammunition.
At any point in your training did you regret enlisting?
I never regretted enlisting, because it was a matter that I was going to go in on Monday instead of Tuesday. Everybody was going, so I never regretted it. I am very proud to have served.
Can you think of any difficult experiences in training?
Yeah, the hardest thing in training was in basic training, in Fresno - being out on the fairgrounds in the middle of summer, marching and doing exercises most of the day. It wasn't difficult. We all survived.
Can you explain a little about your voyage to Europe?
It was very crowded. An uncle of mine, who was in the Seabeas, wrote me and said, be sure to get the top bunk. There were five bunks high, and we were down at D deck. The minute we went down onto D deck, which is well below the water, I climbed up to the top bunk, taking his advice, only to find that there was an air conditioning pipes right over my bunk, and I could hardly move. By that time all the other bunks were taken. So, we slept a lot up on deck. If you wanted to read, you'd go into the latrine, you'd read up there. I have a pretty good stomach, and I don't get seasick. I can remember seeing these kids running up in the middle of the night, and barfing, and I just thought it was the funniest thing. I have a very weird sense of humor, but that's what I took that to be.
We had two meals a day. You'd get up and have breakfast, lunch combination around ten or eleven. Then you would finish with that, and you would go out and come in again and get in line to have your afternoon meal, which was around four. There was nothing to do in between. It was very boring, aside from playing cards, or shooting dice, or whatever we did.
I had a very funny experience going through the mess lines. Everybody in the army has a buddy. I had a buddy who knew that I did not eat pork, or bacon, or any of that. Every time that was served, he would reach over and put a fork into my aluminum tray, and take the pork off my tray. So having two meals a day at sea, after about three or four days, they served us pork chops, and he reached over with a fork to get the pork chop off my tray, and I grabbed his wrist and I said, "let go of that chicken." That was the last of my being a young, kosher soldier.
Did you have any responsibilities on the ship?
No, just to show up for meals. If you didn't show up, you went hungry. There was no place else to go, just like being in the camps in the states before we left. At least there was a PX you could go and get a hamburger or something if you didn't like dinner.
At this time, did you have any goals?
Yeah, I had one goal - that was to come home - stay alive. You know as an eighteen year old kid, you are out there in the middle of the ocean, you don't know where you're going, you don't know what you're going to do, you don't know if you are going to get shot at or killed. It was a world of the unknown. I just wanted to keep living after the war.
When you arrived what did you see?
We arrived at La Havre, France in the middle of the night. We had to climb down rope ladders off the side of the ship. We had to go on the beach. These were the beaches that were used during D-day where these very brave young soldiers went in and had tremendous losses of life and injury. In fact, three of my friends were killed on D-day on that first landing. I was D-day plus many, many days. And all we knew was that we were cold and hungry. You know, when you are in a situation like that, it's first things first you know - how can I get warm and how can I get something to eat? So, we were taken after waiting a couple of hours on the beach. There was a big mix up there, and they finally got trucks to take us to this camp. We still didn't have any food there and it took awhile but it was cold, and I was a young kid from California, and I didn't like the cold and the snow.
Were there any people waiting there to greet you?
No, this was not a big USO. This was arriving in France in the middle of the night on a beach. There was nothing romantic about it.