Burlish Camp Memories – Bob Walton

The Account of Major Donald Walton (Retd). Re The Service of Bob Walton with the United States 297th General Hospital

bob_walton      

It is with great pleasure that I share with you the story of my father’s service in the 297th GH and his experiences as an American soldier in England during the war.  I would immediately point out that this is not a tale of heroism or excitement, but his story is nonetheless important, since it is the account of one person in this one spot which typifies the most significant effects of America’s role in bringing an end to the world’s worst conflict.  They, frankly and honestly, are not exciting enough for Hollywood-type productions and are not discussed in any depth in basic documentaries.  They were both positive and negative due to the decisions made on high and carried out all the way down to the individual service member.  They were unprecedented in United States history both before they were made and since, despite common misperceptions, both at home and abroad, as to the role of the United States in the world after the war.  I will attempt to reference these major points as I tell my father’s tale.  Regarding my father, I will try to bring out poignancies while interlacing bits of humor.

Due to world events by that time, the US Congress passed the first peacetime conscription law in its history in September, 1940.  It required service of only one year and only in the defense of the United States.  What would constitute “defense” could be widely interpreted, but relatively few men were initially inducted.  A second “Selective Service” law was created in August, 1941, to increase length of service, but passed by only one vote.  The isolationist political policies of the United States, which began with our first day as a nation, were still strong.  Despite President Wilson having pioneered the concept at Versailles, Congress had refused to join the League of Nations after the Great War, adding to the effects of appeasement by the 1930s.  All of this, of course, changed on December 7th, 1941, with the Japanese attack in Hawaii.

While many men volunteered, a greater percentage would be conscripted once the U.S. had entered the war.  Although volunteering could increase service choice, most men simply decided to wait for their number to be drawn.  Some, unfortunately, as in any country, were determined to avoid conscription.  My father’s situation was rather different.  Born in Boston in 1915, as a young teen he had been accidentally burned, causing scarring preventing him from being able to raise one of his arms to the vertical.  As conscription loomed, friends and relatives told him the scarring would guarantee disqualification from service.  He accepted this and, otherwise healthy and strong, planned to have a good war-production job in industrial Boston.  Considering his physical exam to be a mere formality, please imagine his shock when he was welcomed into the United States Army after it!  In recognition of his injury, he was told he simply would not be sent overseas.  This was not an act of desperation by the government, but the determination to create unprecedentedly huge armed forces.  These would include massive numbers of reinforced front-line units, supported by troops never-before used in US military history to do virtually anything needed.  Due to his situation, my father was to be one of these troops, known as “duty soldiers.”

Indeed, my father was sent to Texas, which is in the United States.  I include this seemingly patronizing statement because Bob Walton, a young man who had never been outside of the New England region, found Texas’s inclusion in the United States inexplicable, to put it mildly.  His duty was to guard POWs, specifically Italian POWs due to the North Africa campaign.  Without including details, but quite frankly, despite the problems of geography, he found guarding Italian POWS better than having to guard German POWs.  He always liked to tell of how the guards recruited the prisoners to cook.  Therefore, geography aside once again, conditions were at least tolerable.  However, then occurred the Sicily campaign and the mainland Italy invasion.  Italy surrendered and then, essentially, became our ally.  Italian POWs, having no intentions of returning while there was still a war going on, if at all, became guest workers happily living in farmland dormitories, making their guards redundant.

Meanwhile, the incredible build-up for the invasion of northern Europe had been occurring in Britain.  The US government had gone to the Cook County Hospital in Chicago and announced that it (in its entirety) was simply now in the Army, would be called the 297th General Hospital and would be emplaced eventually in England in conjunction with D-Day.  As a city hospital, it was used to treating great trauma and would function well at the general hospital-level of military medical care.  This meant the professional medical staff was organized, given rankings, uniforms, and was joined by additional nurses and duty soldiers with which to run a military-type hospital.  On Memorial Day, May 20th, 1944, the 297th GH, including the reassigned duty soldier Bob Walton, departed New York City on the Queen Elizabeth.  When he had pointed out that Britain actually was overseas, the Army agreed, but said he would not be sent across the Channel.  My father continued to tell some of his stories after I had begun my career as a soldier.  Much of what he told he did not find humorous.  The longer I served, however, the more of it I did find humorous!  If you have an argument with the Army, the outcome tends to be quite predictable.  Thus, if you note our surname, an Anglo-American was en-route to his ancestral homeland, having never anticipated it!

Berthing on that converted luxury liner was based on rank and position.  As a result, my father, in his words, was “below the waterline.”  As described in other testimonies, the trip was rough due to the consistently poor Atlantic weather systems, which finally made the decision to invade Normandy on June 6th so problematic.  My father said it was made worse due to the fact that being able to get “A” rations (meaning fresh, just-cooked food) was complicated by distance, time, and queues.  He and his comrades simply could not get to a meal, which was served well up in the ship, while it was being served.  Instead, they stayed in their berthing space and ate pre-packaged “K” field rations all the way across.  “K” rations were much worse than the more common, but also infamous, “C” field rations.  While “K” rations had been discontinued by the time I joined the Army, “C” rations remained well into my career.  Based on this, I can believe any horror story told about “K” rations!

The unit arrived safely and had set up for operations on Burlish Camp shortly after the invasion had begun.  I should begin this part of the story with what I consider to have been my father’s lighthearted tales.  Again, he would probably disagree with me.  Versus how it looks today, that area was more open, with additional farm fields being used.  He told how a farmer nearby the camp had, for some reason, plowed under a crop of cabbage, causing a very unpleasant aroma to permeate the windy camp.  In all fairness, my father was a true Boston “townie” and might have found the situation worse than it actually was.

bob_walton1

The next bit is one of the famous wartime experiences which added to the creation of the “two peoples separated by a common language” mentality.  My father, of course, would tell of the “warm” beer dilemma encountered when he was able to get a pass into town.  If you allow me a short digression, I should like to explain here that there are true American historical causes for this to have been the common American opinion at the time.  The mass production (and, thus, consumption) of what Americans were to call “beer” did not actually begin until the settlement and development of the Midwest regions.  This was done by immigrants who had the desire and the money with which to do so.  They were largely from northern Europe: Bohemians, Germans, etc.  These lands had the perfect geographic conditions to produce enormous amounts of grain, so much so that it could be exported for great profit.  In fact, during the American Civil War in the 1860s, Great Britain was more interested in American grain due to crop problems in Britain than in American cotton.  Also, grain was grown by free men, while cotton was still grown by slaves, a status proudly already banned by the British people.  As the Midwest developed economically and the transportation infrastructure grew, the enormous production of grain also led to the mass production of beer in Milwaukee, St. Louis, etc. to be sold to the peoples in the Northeast, who were increasing due to industrialization.  However, all of this “beer” was lager due to the European cultures of who produced it.  If one adds to this the American blunder of Prohibition in the 1920s, by the late 1930s the sale of cold lager had been reinvigorated across the United States.  Imagine the stunning surprise when young American males arrived in Britain to learn that real beer is not what they had been consuming at home, no matter where they lived, thus the ensuing culture shock!  If you lived during this time and have not forgiven them, please at least understand this explanation.  Indeed, this problem did affect my father, despite his heritage.  However, his son, who was posted in England for a much longer period than his father, truly enjoys real beer, in a responsible manner.  Due to history, this particular aspect of being English had to skip a generation!

            Our governments agreed that a successful invasion of Western Europe would require enough time in which to be fully supplied and manned.  This was to be much different than when Americans landed in France so late in the Great War.  Then they were ill-equipped and unprepared for what awaited them.  The sheer volume of troops which would enter France this time for the “Second Front,” once the foothold was achieved, coupled with massive firepower of all types, would facilitate a rather quick closure on Germany, which was already desperately fighting the Soviets closing in from the east.  For a number of reasons, this did not happen.  One of the main, yet relatively little-discussed, reasons is the fact that many of the front-line units, conceptually, did not have enough experience and training within both their command structures and troop formations, so much of which were made up of hastily-trained conscripts led, frankly, by hastily-appointed leaders with experiential limitations.  By noting this, I am in no way ignoring or limiting the effects of individual and collective heroism and outright determination in any unit at any time.  However, it did increase casualty rates as a result.  Also, a study of critical points during the campaigns shows that they caused the high command to direct units with the needed experience or elitism to be sent to those areas, causing attrition due to so much exposure to the enemy.  The best example of this would be everything associated with the famous Battle of the Bulge in the Ardennes.

            As a result, the 297th GH was quite busy.  Once again, my father and the other duty soldiers in the unit had no medical qualifications.  Their job was to maintain the camp, guard it, etc.  However, one of the major points of hospital operations my father would speak about had to do with a matter I have read about in a nurse’s testimony with great concurrence.  While the theater of operations physical casualty treatment structure was working very well from the first battlefield medic up to the general hospital, there seemed to be an issue with the psychiatric/psychological treatment process.  Again, as a civilian hospital in a city, there was great experience with physical trauma, but probably not as much with psychological to have had it brought forward when militarized.

              Identified soldiers were, no doubt, quickly sent to the general level for treatment as battlefield facilities had to be dedicated to physical wounds.  The nurse testimony tells of having been sent to work in the psych ward and the uneasiness which prevailed to the point where she was quite glad to be put back into a physical casualty ward.  My father told that he and others were sent into the psych ward in a sort of orderly status, again without any training.  He was there simply to exercise physical control over certain patients.My father, as a layman, also found this ward disturbing in that he and his comrades had the belief that some of the patients did not have actual problems.  Their behavior, however, caused them to be confined to the ward, sometimes with difficulty, whereas ambulatory physically wounded and recovering patients were allowed out of the camp into the local communities along with camp personnel.  Again, this is simply recounting my father’s comments aligned with the nurse testimony.

             I can say that the modern military has maintained a more robust medical system than that which existed in the very small US Army prior to the war.  This includes psych resources.  However, even today the stretching of the much smaller military in the face of present conflicts has proven to be problematic.

            In addition to what my father told of life in the hospital, he also recounted quite solemnly that he and his comrades had been placed on work details to assist British authorities following V-2 strikes.  I do not know the exact locations, but the timeframe is certainly accurate and the fact that these troops were stabilized in their encampments would allow them to be sent perhaps long distances to where the strikes occurred in the London area.  His emotional descriptions were also accurate.  Since a V-2 strike did not allow people to take cover as they had during the Blitz, my father was able to mention how the recovery work included picking up just pieces of the victims.  These supposed strategic weapons to win the war for Hitler and his henchmen were simply terror weapons.

            As the war did wind down in Europe, the 297th was designated to move to the Pacific.  Its trip was stopped due to the progress of history in that theater and it returned to the US.  As in Britain, whether one had enlisted or had been conscripted, the term of service once we had entered the war had no end date and would continue until the war’s end.  For Americans, however, this was not entirely accurate.  The military was so large and expensive that downsizing had to be done in stages.  Service members who wanted to leave the service, as most did, would do so based on a point system.  Points were accrued based on many different criteria having to do with what one had done in service.  The more points one had, the earlier would be one’s discharge date.  My father, indeed, had not gone across the Channel to get closer to the enemy and wound up with a low point total as a result.  Therefore, having believed he would not even enter the Army, my father was in it until 1946!  With his last posting at Fort Devens, Massachusetts, on their last day he and other Bostonians he had met there quickly changed into civilian clothes, jumped into a car and, probably quite quickly, drove to Boston, never looking back.

He returned to a working-class life in the part of Boston known, affectionately, as “Southie.”  He met a woman, Ethel, at church, an Episcopalian church, meaning the American part of the worldwide Anglican Communion, where they would be married and created a family.  My mother, perhaps interestingly, had spent part of the war in California with a sister whose husband had been recalled from retirement from the US Navy prior to the Pearl Harbor attack.  The couple had then been stationed at Pearl Harbor when the attack occurred.  She then returned to the mainland as he went to sea—on a new ship, since his had been sunk that day.  He had been ashore with his family.  My mother went out to be with her, but also got a job at a Boeing plant there making the wings of B-17 bombers, becoming an example of “Rosie the Riveter.”   My father was a lifelong smoker, causing us to lose him far too early at 69 in 1984.  Despite what I found humorous but he had not, like so many of his peers, he was proud to have served and was proud of me and my brother for doing so as well.

Please allow me to add some final comments.  First, to reiterate a bit, the US military in World War II was of unprecedented size.  For the task at hand it needed to be, but the way in which it was done also created great problems.  As in most nations, but especially in America, downsizing occurred rapidly after the war, despite the dangers posed by what would be called the Cold War.  In the 1950s, even after what had happened in Korea, then-President Eisenhower decided ground forces were unnecessary in a future nuclear war.  This caused a very problematic conscription situation to deal with the Vietnam conflict in the 1960s.  Whatever one’s opinions are about that war, the process did great harm to the US Army.  Conversion to an all-volunteer force thereafter was extremely successful, but expensive.  The end of the Cold War overjoyed the US Congress because more downsizing would create the “Peace Dividend.”  It did not, however, because of what has happened since.  The downsizing did take place, causing great stress to active and reserve forces.  Recent events have greatly affected British forces as well.

What the future holds is critical for both our countries, but, in my opinion, there is very little either country can do to bring about a proper end state in those parts of the world in conflict.  It is not up to the West to address and end the radicalism and remaining despotism.  It needs to be assumed and accomplished by the intelligent people of those parts of the world to bring order and join the rest of the world.  We shall see.

Major Donald Walton, US Army, Retired

Donald_Walton