A Cook's Experiences in World War II

A Cook's Experiences in World War II

Several years ago my father, Joseph A. “Buck” Craton (also known as “Stinky” to many of the men in his outfit), wrote a short autobiography which he wished to pass along to his grandchildren. Much of his story was very personal and of interest primarily to his own family. However, the section presented here tells about his experiences as a cook in the U.S. Army during the Second World War. I thought it was a very honest and insightful account of what many of our soldiers experienced during that conflict, and I believed others might also find it interesting.

My father was in the U.S. 3rd Army, 65th Infantry Division, 869th Field Artillery Battalion, Headquarters Battery. He passed away in June 2003, but I would genuinely enjoy hearing from anyone who knew members of his old unit. If you have information you would like to send, please e-mail me.

Buck Craton

In 1941 when I became 21 I had to register for the draft. In October I received my classification 1A, and attached to it were my induction papers. On October 9th I had to report to Anniston, because we were among the first to be drafted and were also the largest number. The city officials had a big banquet for us. It was held in the Alabama Power Company building which now houses Kemp Office Supplies [now out of businesses]. Dad couldn’t come with me so Lucille went instead. After lunch they loaded us on buses and we went on to Ft. McClellan. We spent one night there, and on October 10, 1941, I was sworn into the army. We boarded a train on post and went back through Anniston. Little did I know it would be two years before I would see my family again. We went to Ft. McPherson, Georgia. We were there several weeks and while there I signed up for regular army for three years overseas duty. My choice was Puerto Rico. We left Ft. McPherson and went to Ft. Eustace, Virginia, for basic training. We were there on the fateful day of December 7. We were at war. I think that we in the military fared better than civilians at this time. We were more or less established by now. However, we didn’t think they would honor the papers we signed asking for Puerto Rico. We got further into our training. I was in coast artillery and didn’t like the big guns. I had a chance to get into cooks and bakers school, and took advantage of it.

You remember I told you I worked at the mill stand among other duties making hamburgers? Well, the army asked if any of us had experience in cooking. I of course stretched the truth a little and said I was a short-order cook once. They accepted me and, believe it or not, I became a pretty good cook.

Along about February in 1942 we left Ft. Eustace and went to Ft. Slocum, New York. It was a small island close to New Rochelle. Boy, was it cold there! We only stayed there a few weeks then boarded a troop train. The next day we were sidetracked for a while and found we were in Buffalo, New York. We were beginning to think we were going anywhere but Puerto Rico. We stayed one week on that train zig-zagging across the eastern U.S. before we finally pulled into the docks of New Orleans. We got off, had roll call, then boarded an old ship which looked like an old cattle boat. This was my first experience traveling by ship. I must admit it was a very thrilling trip. We had problems eating. We all had queasy stomachs, and we would go through chow line and into the dining room. The tables were long counters about waist high. We had to stand while eating and when some guy at the table would get sick and vomit into his tray, that, of course, would set off a chain reaction as you probably guessed. The fish got most of the food!

We spent one night in Jamaica. We couldn’t get off the ship, so the native boys swam around the ship diving for money that was tossed overboard. I remember they had rum bottles, selling them for $2.00. We tied our tent ropes together and tied the money to it and lowered it; they would tie the bottle and we’d pull it up and hide it. When we finally thought it was safe I took a small drink. It tasked awful. (I had never tasted rum.) I asked another guy to taste it and he said it was nothing but seawater! We got hooked!

We sailed the following morning on to Puerto Rico. All went well until we encountered a ferocious storm. I then realized that I would never be a sailor. We were riding the waves. One moment we would be looking down about three to five stories, then the ship would fall and we thought it would break in two. We would look up and the ocean would be as high above us just like we were in a huge hole!

On a beautiful sunny Sunday we sailed in to the harbor of San Juan. I believe that was the most beautiful sight I have seen in my life — all the different colored flowers and palm trees. About 2:00 in the afternoon we marched off the ship and lined up on the docks, and would you believe, we could hardly stand! We had traveled for a week on a troop train and another five days on ship with all the swaying motion, then when we were on land it was uncanny. We marched up through Old San Juan to the old castle “El Morro.” The old Spanish fort was to be our home for the next eighteen months.

They put us on the lower level. I can’t describe the feeling, both the excitement and also the depression. Our sleeping quarters as I said were in the bottom of the castle. We had a large open window facing the ocean with a large heavy door, and at times we had to close it to keep the spray from coming in. The first few days were very lonely. Here I was, never having been more than a hundred miles from home and finding myself on this island so far from home. I must admit I was very homesick for a while.

It took several weeks to get organized but finally we did, only to find we had too many cooks. So we worked out a deal so we only had to be on duty one day and be off three days. Each shift went on duty following the noon meal and then would get breakfast and serve lunch. Cooks were a special sort of people. We didn’t have any inspections in our living quarters and didn't have to stand any formations. We were almost like civilians. Each had his own class “A” pass which meant we could go and come as we pleased. Throughout the war there was a special bond between the first sergeant, supply sergeant, and the cooks. The reason is obvious. The first sergeant and supply sergeant didn’t have to get in chow line. Also they could come in and anything they wanted, the cooks prepared it for them. In return the first sergeant never put cooks’ names on any work detail. Cooks also never wanted for clothing from the supply sergeant. You could call it a special group. I’m sure this went on throughout the armed forces.

Things got so boring I signed up for detached service on another part of the island. This was done to train young Puerto Ricans. We lived in tents while there only about 100 yards from the beach. We had time more or less to become beachcombers. I bought a rod & reel and went fishing nearly every day. One Sunday morning I was fishing from a cliff jutting out over the ocean and was reeling in my line when I had a strike. I thought I had a fish that weighed at least fifty pounds. It took me about thirty minutes to finally bring it in, and I was disappointed because it only weighed 14½ pounds. I found out later that was a good size for red snapper. I carried it back to camp and put it in the refrigerator, and that night our first sergeant caught one that weighed 54 pounds. It took two men to bring it in. Now we had nearly 70 pounds of fresh fish. We decided to have a large fish fry on the beach. Several of the men brought cases of beer and we all (including officers) had a great time that night.

Another of our sports was gigging for lobster. We used a gig similar to a frog gig and strong flashlight. We would wait till the tide went out, then we would wade out holding the light above water’s edge. The lobster eyes would glow just like two glowing cigarettes. Then as we got near they would go under the water in the potholes. We would then gig them. We always had seafood to eat.

One night I was alone and had been walking out about 100 yards from shore when I realized I didn't know which direction to go to reach the beach. I almost panicked. Tide was coming in real fast. Had I but stood still I could tell the direction the tide was coming, but as I said I was near panic. Suddenly out of the corner of my eye I saw someone light a cigarette and got back safely.

I finally served out my time there and was shipped to the other end of the island, this time going to Borinquen Field, which is now known as Ramey Air Force Base. We rode the train from San Juan. The trip took all day. We went through the rain forest which was beautiful. It was so high at one point they had an extra engine stationed there to help push the train over the mountain, then it would wait for the train coming back and help it over. I think this was the prettiest part of the island, and we stayed here for the rest of my tour in Puerto Rico.

It was here I had the experience of a lifetime. We started having earth tremors. One night I woke up thinking someone was shaking my bed. Then I realized what it was and rushed outside. Talk about a funny feeling! We felt the ground shaking under us. Of course we were pretty scared! This lasted on and for off several weeks. We never did get used to it.

Now comes time for our departure back to the States. We had to ride the train back to San Juan, and the ship we were to go home was so large and loaded it couldn’t come into the harbor, so we were loaded onto barges and towed to the ship. When we were all aboard the Captain told us via the public address system that we would have to sleep on deck. There just wasn’t any room in the ship. He promised we would be home by Christmas. This was in 1943. We made the trip fine. No one was seasick. In fact you couldn’t even feel any movement on that large ship. But things started to get bad the last day on ship. We were all in our “sun tan” uniforms we used in Puerto Rico, and now we were going very slowly up the Hudson River in December! It was overcast and very cold. It took most of the day to dock and get off. We were cold and hungry. We got on a troop train and went over to Camp Kilmer in Jersey. It was late in the afternoon when we arrived and got off. We thought they would take us right to the mess hall but to our dismay it was a another hall. We had to have a “short arm inspection” (check for venereal disease). We wondered how they thought we could have any by traveling all this time, but we did get through and got to our barracks and finally to the mess hall. There was a surprise for us. We could eat three meals in this special mess hall, then we would go to the regular one. In this special one we could order anything we wanted and eat as much as we wanted. I mean they had everything under the sun!

We left Camp Kilmer more or less on our own. We all split up and went to our homes. I hadn’t written any of my folks since I left Puerto Rico. I got off train at 4th Street, walked up to Lucille’s hat shop, and just walked in on her. She saw me at once and came running to me. Then she called Dad who was at work at the mill (where Mason’s department store was). He came in real quick. We had a great homecoming. I had to go to Munford to see Sue. It was after dark and they had built a new highway since I had left. I had trouble finding where to turn off at Munford, but I did indeed find it. I had a whole 30 days to be with the people I loved.

At the end of leave I had to report to Camp Shelby, Mississippi. I caught a bus in Anniston. It was about dark and had standing room only. I thought when we got to Birmingham some of the people would get off, but not so. I had to stand all the way. Back then you were lucky if you could get in a bus or train.

I arrived in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, the following day, got a cab to Shelby, and boy what a let-down! I got that feeling I had when I’d descended to the bottom of El Morro Castle in Puerto Rico. I was pretty homesick for a couple of weeks, then got accustomed to everything.

Now I’m in a field artillery unit. These guns were large, but compared to the ones in Puerto Rico were pop guns.

Sue and I became engaged while I was in Mississippi. I had bought me a 1934 Ford coupe. I made some trips home in it, and when we became engaged I sold it to buy a ring. I sent the money to Lucille, and she and Kon picked out a nice ring. My sister Mildred was to bring the ring. She and Sue came to see me while in Mississippi, then that night I gave Sue the ring and pledged my love to her. We were both very happy.

We were then sent to Ft. Sill, Oklahoma, for training with the officers in training. This was my first visit west, and I sure did enjoy it. While there I saw the jail in which Geronimo, the great Indian warrior, had been imprisoned. Where he walked inside around the small enclosure was a path worn deep in the ground.

After our work at Ft. Sill we went back to Camp Shelby and prepared to go to Europe. From Camp Shelby we went back to New York where we sailed for England. When we were in the middle of the Atlantic I was promoted to sergeant. Of all the sailing we did, I think the English Channel was by far the roughest. Our orders were changed and instead of going to England we went to France. We docked at Le Havre around midnight and thought we would stay on board until daybreak, but no so. We left the ship, and it was cold and snowing. We were loaded onto trucks again and went to Camp Lucky Strike. We got out of the trucks around three in the morning and all we saw was snow. We asked about our quarters. They laughed and told us to make the best of it. We gathered wood and finally got us a fire going in an old 55-gallon can. We stood around till daybreak, and then rounded up some old tents large enough for about six guys each and were given a small heater and some folding cots and a sleeping bag. We were stuck there for a couple of months. We would get up at 6:00 and stand in line for chow. It would take till about 10:00 to get breakfast which consisted of powdered eggs and bacon. After we ate breakfast we got in line to wash our mess kits. It usually took an hour or so, then we got back in line for supper — only two meals a day. By the time we finished supper and washed our mess kits, the day was over. That was how we spent our time in Camp Lucky Strike.

I remember one funny incident. We were about to starve and we decided we would steal some food from the supply tent. (I must explain here, we were a whole division and our equipment hadn’t been unloaded off the ship, so we were at the mercy of whoever was running the camp.) I got a gallon can of beef stew and one of the guys in our tent could speak French so he went to a farmhouse and swapped some candy bars for some bread. So there we were in our tent eating all that good food from those cans when the tent door opened and in walked a colonel. We didn’t know what to do. Finally the officer said “Aren’t you boys gonna invite the Colonel to eat?” We told him to help himself which he did, and when we had finished off everything he replied, “I don’t know where you boys got that food, but if you get any more you had better invite me!”

We finally got our equipment and were put in the Third Army commanded by George Patton, one of the toughest generals in the army. He gave us a pep talk before we left for combat. He told us if any German soldier surrendered to us, not to take them prisoner but to shoot the S.O.B. and go on! I guess I should tell you the outfit I was in. The 869th field battalion in the 65th infantry division. I rode the back of a mess truck from Le Havre, France, to Linz, Austria!

I saw my first dead soldier in Germany. It kind of gave me an eerie feeling. I found that one could get used to dead people. Our biggest victory for my unit was to take the city of Heidleberg. (I guess I should tell you how a unit worked in wartime. We — the artillery — would set up 8 to 10 miles from our target. The whole battalion would fire for several hours, doing much damage. Then the tanks and foot soldiers went in and finished the job.) Getting back to Heidleberg, the mayor and city officials came out and surrendered the city. The military there had pulled out, and because of this and the fact that they had a large chemical storage compound, they gave up. This was the first large city we went into while the civilians were still there. I remember seeing the women crying as they moved their possessions out of their homes. (The army always required several buildings to set up headquarters.) We were all very nice to the German people.

The war was winding down at this time. The Germans surrendered whole battalions if they got the opportunity. In many of the smaller towns after we set up headquarters, we would hire the local women to help in the kitchen. We would tell them of the terrible things the Germans had done, and they just would not believe us. Today I can understand because our government does things which we know nothing about.

In one large city we were there for several days and were ordered to go through a prison camp for the Jews. One cannot describe the things we saw. First as we walked toward the entrance we saw dead Jews on the side of the road. Inside the compound were many portable nooses. They were made out of 4x4 lumber and had wheels on them so they could be moved easily. Each one had three wire nooses. They would pick the men up, slip this over their heads and turn them loose to choke to death. We saw the large barnlike structure where they gassed their victims pretending to them they were to shower and be deloused. Men, women, and children were put to death by the thousands. It was in here their hair was cut off (they used it in making insulated jackets for their men). All the gold was pulled from their teeth, and the ones who had tattoos on their bodies were skinned, and I saw a beautiful lampshade made from human skin. We thought this was horrible until we saw more. We went through large buildings where they had the dead stacked like cordwood clear to the ceilings, leaving only a walkway between. Then we went on to the burial grounds. They had a bulldozer and had dug several “graves.” They were about the length of a football field and about fifteen feet wide and Lord knows how deep. They would push a little dirt on the bodies and dump more on top. You could see heads, arms, legs, and feet sticking up through the dirt. I thought it looked like someone had planted a field with human parts. The Germans were killing the Jews faster than they could dispose of their bodies. They were even burning them on huge racks set up like a B.B.Q. 200-300 feet long. I know this is hard to believe, but it was actually much worse than I have described it. I thought as we rode back to town and saw the German civilians acting like they knew nothing of all this how cruel they were. Then it occurred to me, they probably didn’t know about it. I compared the situation with Anniston and Ft. McClellan. We don’t know what they do. So I felt a little better about the people there.

This section is about me shooting down a plane. I’ll begin by describing how we operated in a large city. Our battalion consisted of headquarters (which I was in), four batteries of artillery, and one battery of anti-aircraft. Headquarters and anti-aircraft set up in the center of town, then each of the others set up on the corners. Our mess truck was equipped with a revolving 50 cal. machine gun mounted in the roof of the cab. If enemy planes attacked, no one would fire until they were in the circle of fire. One particular day I was alone with the mess truck and was serving coffee to our sergeant major. No one else was around. Suddenly there was a squadron of M.E. 109s overhead. Well, when all our batteries opened up they were so busy trying to get out of the circle of fire, I don’t remember their firing a shot. It was at this point the sergeant major told me to use our gun. I always liked to fire those things, so I jumped in the truck and picked out a target. When you fired a large machine gun you could see the tracers and know exactly how you were doing. No one else was firing at my plane. The sergeant yelled to me, “Lead it a little more.” You could see the tracers going into the tail of the plane. I took his advice and, lo, I got him! Smoke started streaming from the plane, and suddenly I got this feeling in the pit of my stomach. I thought, “God! I have just killed a man!” But suddenly I saw the canopy fly off and I saw a parachute open and I felt good again.

The sergeant major reported to my commanding officer and recommended that I get a medal, but our commander wouldn’t believe his story and gave the credit and the pilot’s side arm to the anti-aircraft officer. (Any soldier shooting down or capturing a German officer received his side arm).

Soon after this incident we pushed on into Germany. We got our orders that our battalion was to go on a highly dangerous mission. We were to spearhead beyond any other Americans. We removed the field ranges (stoves) from the mess truck and loaded it with field rations and bazooka shells — nothing more. Man, if we had been hit with that aboard we’d have been blown to bits! We had sealed orders; even our officers didn’t know our destination. We were told by Gen. Patton that we would either be heroes or be annihilated.

We did get in trouble once. A large number of Tiger tanks were coming toward us, and we had to dig foxholes and try to stop them with only bazookas, which we knew we couldn’t. We got on the radio for help. In just a few minutes three P47s came over. We could see them dive and hear the firing. In a short while they flew over us and dipped their wings and flew off. We could see several columns of black smoke and knew they had done their job well. At that time we didn’t think about anyone being killed, but as I look back now I can see that many young men died that day.

We drove through a German town. All the lights were on, the stores were open, and people walking on the sidewalks looked at us strangely. We too didn’t know what to think. We had actually driven deep into Germany past the fighting. We learned several days later that a large German camp near that city had been captured after our visit. We were the first Americans in that city!

We traveled on for several days, but nothing ever happened. We finally got back with our outfit, and until this day we don’t know what happened!

Only one more episode of fighting. We drove into a small farming community late in the afternoon. We would always use farm buildings, not the peoples’ home. There were two young German soldiers there who probably lived there. Anyway, as we were getting our equipment set up, one of these kids panicked and ran toward the hills. We would have let him go because the war was just about over, but one boy in the gun outfit shot him and hit him in the leg. He got up and started running again. This time he was shot in the other leg, and the GI who shot him went up and, as the young man lay wounded, this “brave” American shot him in the head, blowing half of his face away. He then calmly came back, leaving the boy up there. We all felt like doing the same to him, but not even the officers rebuked him. I think what we saw that day was none other than cold-blooded murder.

I have imagined many times what went on in that little farmhouse that night, the parents knowing that their son was lying up there dead and couldn’t go to him; and also the feeling of those parents the next day after we left. What kind of scene did they witness? I’m sure no one could ever convince those people that we were the good Americans!

We are in Wels Austria now, set up in an old sugar-beet refinery when we get the news, “War is over!” We went to the small town of Linz near Vienna and took over a hotel (later I learned Uncle Sam paid for it). We were living like people again. We paired off two to a room and even hired local girls to be maids.

The hotel had two kitchens, one large and then a small one for the bar and coffee shop. The officers took over the coffee shop. That left the big one for us. The officers lost no time in stocking theirs with French four-star cognac. They stored it in their walk-in refrigerator. One morning when we went into our refrigerator we found this secret door that opened into the officer’s mess. We would get two or three bottles of their cognac each day. Only Corporal Reid and I knew about this door, and for the next several weeks the officers questioned everyone but never did find out what happened.

We left Austria by truck, making our journey back to Le Havre, France. It took quite a while to get things organized, and as time drew near we would work on the way home. We decided all the workers and guards would board ship a day early so we could get everything set up. Now here is how the army thought in those days: cooks would take quarters on main deck and guards would quarter below deck (right next to the kitchen). The guards had to come topside each shift, and we had to go below each shift!

We docked once again in New York. Our destination now was to whatever camp we had been inducted in. We went to Ft. McPherson, Georgia, and from there took the bus home for good. We had a happy reunion with Sue and my folks, and believe it or not I had mixed feelings about being out of the army.

I was discharged on October 5, 1945.

Copyright © 1997 by J.A. Craton
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