Chapter: Egypt/ Middle East Training and adventures.
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Orv' WWII Autobiography
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Orv Iverson's WWII
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Most of the days passed uneventfully, until one night the ship's steel plates shuddered from an explosion. I believed we had been hit by a torpedo. I do not remember feeling fear. More like acceptance of what we might expect on a voyage like this. I immediately went up on the deck. I did not like the idea of being below deck. When I came onto deck I saw the depth charges being fired from the stern. The five inch gun had fired only one round. Now the depth charges were exploding underwater. After this first firing of the big gun and the depth charges, it was taken in stride. In the Red Sea, after we had made stops at Aden and Massawa (East Africa) the big guns and (Anti-Aircraft) AA guns were used to fire at floating mines. Some of the shells from the big guns went skipping off the water into the desert.
By now it was the last part of January. However, when we stopped at Aden and Massawa it became very hot inside the ship. We could see a different world as we peered out the porthole. I can remember the foreman of the offloading crew with his bullwhip, which he used to strike the workers when they did not work fast enough. Fortunately, the workers wore a nightgown type of garment that would seem to absorb some of blows from the whip.
Finally, on February 1,1943 we arrived at Port Said and were taken from the ship to the shore on smaller boats. Most of us had difficulty walking on dry land after being on a floating vessel for a month and a half. From the port we were taken by a train with wooden seats across desert area to an army camp near Cairo.
At Camp Kilo 13 near Heliopolis near Cairo we were billeted in tin-roofed barracks built with concrete block walls. Because of the measles epidemic aboard ship we were placed in quarantine for thirty days. While in quarantine we were not allowed to leave the base. However, we were allowed to send a telegram home telling of our safe arrival. My parents did not receive the telegram until March 1st. Our last mail that was allowed to be sent was sometime in November of 1942. So my parents did not know my whereabouts from November 1942, until March 1st of 1943. During that almost identical time, my brother Vernon was participating in the invasion of North Africa as a machine gunner with the 3rd Infantry Division, in the first wave coming into Fedala near Casablanca.
During the quarantine period we were required to help out at the base warehouse. The warehouse had large quantities of food that was not part of the menu at our messhall. I believe it was items reserved for higher ranking officers. Some of our GI's thought it would be nice to include these special items in our menu. So for awhile we ate very well, until one day our company commander noticed the high quality of food in our messhall. He investigated and somehow discovered that food had been taken from the warehouse without official approval and used in our messhall. Well, it was back to beans, and some of the non-coms working in the warehouse were busted in rank. This left some bitter feelings, even into the many years after the war. Some of these GI's would not attend reunions while the CC was alive.
After the quarantine period ended we were allowed to visit Cairo and other places of interest, including the Pyramids and the Sphinx. I can remember the trip to the Pyramids in an old tour bus as a rather wild one. My religious friend, Herb Person, prayed much of the way. The bus driver had the horn honking most of the way winding his way through the Cairo traffic, which included many types of donkey drawn carts. Piles of bread were piled on the sidewalks next to where the donkeys relieved themselves. At one intersection a lady came to us at the bus window. She held up her baby, with its fly-covered eyes, and wanted us to buy her baby.
At the Pyramids, we were invited to have our pictures taken on the camel at the Sphinx. The pictures would be sent to us at camp. After about a month, when the pictures had not arrived, we contacted the Red Cross. With some difficulty we finally received our pictures. One thing has always puzzled me; one of the natives at the Pyramids came up to me and gave me some ancient appearing coins. He refused to accept money for them. He said they came from within the Pyramids. I still have the coins.
Meanwhile, back at the camp, life went on from day to day without much change. The showers were cold, food was limited, and there was very little recreation activity. Some days the sand would blow into our clothes in the barracks. One day the CC took us for a march into the desert. The CC had received a direct commission from being a executive in the flew Jersey telephone system. When he marched us back toward the barracks he did not know the command to prevent us from running into the wall of the barracks. Some of the GI's, who had been busted, made the most of this situation. They purposely hit the wall full force and crumpled to the ground, while the CC fumbled for a command to turn the company around.
After about a month I was assigned to a British radio and radar school at Helwan, Egypt just about twenty miles up the Nile River. About twenty-five GI's, mostly 414th, were billeted in a private residence. Although we had a Lt. Hunt, USA, in charge of our detachment, we were definitely subject to the British, including eating at their messhall.
Unfortunately, the food at the British messhall was prepared by natives. As time went on I developed a bad case of dysentery. After awhile I avoided eating at the messhall. I lived on oranges, mostly. In fact one time I became so ill I was sent back to the USA hospital at Kilo 13. At the British hospital I had a Greek MD who treated me with iodine in water. At the USA hospital I was given sulfa tablets and atabrine, but never told what my illness was. Finally I was sent back to Helwan.
One of the GI's, I believe his name was Robert White, from Chicago, was assigned to work with me on the school network. Only coded messages were allowed. He started to broadcast in plain language. When the instructor noticed I was receiving in plain language he became very angry. He notified the sergeant in charge who in turn reported this incident to our commanding officer, Lt. Hunter. He had both Pvt. White and me put on a week's KP duty working with the natives at the British messhall. Our job was slicing the bug infested bread. It was an enlightening experience. We discovered to our dismay that the natives would wash themselves with the same brushes that were used to scrub the pots and pans.
The British had other differences in their messhall. No hot water was available for washing our messkits. We had to scrub them with sand after we rinsed them in the cold water. About once a week a British warrant officer would come into the messhall, click his heels, and salute. He would announce in a pompous manner, "Any complaints?" One day Pvt. White from Chicago responded in a boisterous voice, "Yes, I have a complaint. This stuff tastes like shit!" The warrant officer clicked his heels, snapped a British salute and briskly left.
Soldiers from many nations attended school at Helwan, including Turks dressed in civilian clothes. We could hear the British troops marching up the streets with their hobnailed boots clapping down on the pavement. They had a more brisk, formal, step with swinging arms, much more of a military step than the US GI's. It was more like the German goosestep.
Because the weather was extremely hot we attended school in the early morning hours and then again in the evening. We would take a nap or go for a walk in the park during the midday hours.
At school we learned the British "X" system and some radio theory, even some air navigational skills, such as homing in on broadcast stations. The British expectations were very high, with only one error allowed on the radio receiving tests, which required at least 27 words per minute. The complete course had to be repeated if the test was not passed to the British standards.
We very seldom saw our commanding officer, Lt Hunter. We were pretty much on our own. One time, I and another GI went in to the signal office in Cairo to try to obtain a radio position at the radio station at the command headquarters. The major there wanted us but Lt. Hunter did not like the way we went about it. He was very pleasant about this indiscretion, but made it clear that this was not proper procedure. Lt. Hunter, I have been told, committed suicide. I do not know why he committed suicide, except to say that he was the only US officer and that there was little opportunity for social contacts.
On weekends the GI's at the British school would take the train into Cairo. The trip was a ride of about one hour on wooden seats in the company of Arabs in their "night gowns" and the cackling of chickens in wooden cages aboard the train. In Cairo we would check in at the Grand Hotel run by the Red Cross for a weekend on the town. The first treat was breakfast which included waffles and water buffalo meat. Then we might shop around for silver filigree and items made from ivory. Then we might take in a Hollywood movie with subtitles in French, Arabic, Hebrew, and sometimes Greek. Always, there were beggars and young Arabs who wanted to polish your shoes whether the shoes needed polishing or not. One time they became very aggressive and chased us throwing liquid shoe polish. We ducked into a shop and the shop owner phoned for the police. The Arab boys promptly departed. One time we were looking out of the window at the Grand Hotel at a fight taking place in the street. About ten Arabs were fighting, When the fight finished and the Arabs left, there were two Arabs left lying on the street bleeding very badly. Nobody seemed to do anything to help them. Finally, an ambulance arrived and took the two wounded Arabs away.
I finally was graduated from the RAF Radio and Radar School at Helwan, Egypt July 10, 1943, but not after some serious illnesses with symptoms of high fever and diarrhea. I believe the illnesses may have been due to the poor sanitary conditions at the British kitchen, maybe due to the many sand flea bites or maybe related to the heat. There was no sanitary water source. The water was kept in a porous clay container to cool it, but there were no lister bags. Finally the instruction begun on March 5th was completed. As a reward for finishing the course we were granted a three day pass to Alexandria, Egypt. This seacoast town was much cleaner and pleasant than Cairo. On July 20 I flew to Bengazhi, Libya to join the 414th. The flight was on a C-47 cargo plane, about an hour and a half sitting on metal bench seats among cargo. The temp on the ground was very hot, but when we reached about seven thousand feet it became pleasantly cool,
At Bengazhi we lived in British tents that were double roofed and the cots were enclosed in mosquito netting. One morning I woke to find a scorpion sitting on my mosquito netting just above my head. We slept with our clothing on the cot enclosed in the netting, so I promptly grabbed my shoe and whacked the scorpion.
My assignment at Bengazhi was radio operating at the command radio station mostly nights, also pinch-hitting on the teletype machine. During the daytime I would hitch a ride to the beach to swim in the warm Mediterranean waters. While swimming, B-24 bombers would skim over the waves just above our heads. They were practicing for the low-level bombing raids to be done on the Rumanian oil fields. On the day of the bombing raids the B-24s left very early in the morning. Just before dark the same day they returned in a helter-skelter pattern. Some props were feathered enabling the plane to barely clear the ground for the landings. It was obvious the losses were heavy
During August the weather became hot. About the tenth of August I became quite feverous during the night. I can remember walking over to the orderly tent. I believe I must have passed out. The next thing I knew I was in the nearby field hospital. If the MD's knew, they didn't tell me my illness. However, I was sent to the US hospital near Cairo via C-47. While there I was given large doses of sulfa tablets. There was a shortwave radio in the ward at the hospital. I tried to receive the Morse code, but I became very shaky, like I was nervous. I never did find out my diagnosis. However, when I was discharged from the hospital I was asked to drive an ambulance back to Benghazi with another GI.
We were allowed six days to drive the eight hundred miles. I wanted to spend some more time in Alexandria, but the other GI was in a hurry to return to his outfit. I soon found out the other GI was not an experienced driver. I was lying down on the bench of the ambulance when he hit a large shell hole in the road. Some of the mountain roads had been bombed out so we had to drive up and down some steep ascents and descents. I did most of the driving in these areas. One night we got lost in the desert and could not tell whether we were still on the road. Finally about midnight we were running low on gas so we stayed for the night. Lo and behold, in the morning we awoke to find the British petrol station in view. Their petrol stations were located about every one hundred miles along the desert road. Sometimes it was difficult to tell the road from the rest of the desert. Along the way we saw much destroyed German, Italian and British military equipment.
Meanwhile back at the radio station at Benghazi. One night after I finished my tour of duty I caught a ride back to the camp with one of the couriers in a jeep. The jeep driver's name, I believe, was Hayes. Anyway, he had a message to deliver to one of the B-24 Groups so I rode out with him. However, on the way back he was driving at high speed, probably 65MPH. The speedometer was going around for the second time, because the speedometer on jeeps was only up to 60MPH. He hit some humps on the slick dew covered roadway. The jeep began to fishtail. Instead of trying to bring it under control, he threw up his hands and the jeep went backwards at high speed. I can remember floating through the air. The next thing I recall, I was in almost total darkness, except for a couple beams of light shining into the sky. I thought I had passed on into the next world. I began praying the Lord's Prayer. I felt no pain. However. very soon I realized my predicament. I was pinned under the jeep with the jeep resting on my chest. Private Hayes yelled for help. I had difficulty breathing. Blood was running down my neck from a chin injury. My teeth had gone through my lower lip area. With some effort I was able to squirm out from the jeep. After that I could not move and had difficulty breathing. One of the US outfits saw our headlights shining into the desert sky. Their MD looked me over, and said to the ambulance driver to handle me carefully, that I had some broken ribs and a broken leg. The CC got word somehow and visited me while I was still in shock. The next day I was X-rayed and much to the MD's surprise, I did not have any broken bones, just a broken front tooth. I had to remain hospitalized for about ten days. I can remember being unhappy to miss out on a trip via a B-25 Medium Bomber. I was scheduled to go on leave to the Holy Land.
On October seventeenth the 414th went to Port Said to sail through the Suez Canal to a new assignment. We had no idea where we were going. The trip through the Suez Canal was a hot one, crowded into one large room where we ate on long benches packed close together. At night we would sleep in hammocks that we hung above the tables. I can remember one GI whose hammock broke loose and he crashed to the floor. Fights would break out at meal time if someone would take more than his share of food. The pots of food and bread was passed down the length of the twenty foot tables and the guys would take their share as it was passed along the table. Most of the time fights were not very successful because there wasn't enough room to swing their arms.
The scenery along the way was desert on both sides of the ship. Sometimes sand would drift into the open portholes. We would see date palms and camels when we looked out portholes. The ship was a British ship named the Britannia, I believe.
After a few days we began seeing islands. I believe one of the islands was Malta. Finally we pulled into the port of Augusta, Sicily, However, we did not stay long in Sicily. One of the things I remembered about Sicily was seeing a volcano, I believe it was Mount Etna. I remember a barrage balloon descending from the sky after It had been deflated. It did not fall straight down but it spiraled down rather slowly.
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