Saturday, February 7, 2009

Letter 13- October 31, 1943

October 31, 1943
(Camp Abbot, Oregon)

Dear Folks,

I have in my pocket at this moment 4 letters: two from you Daddy. This being Sunday I have plenty of time to write so I plan to get off three letters: This, my regular letter; one to Mother; and one to Pappy-A pretty ambitious plan if I do say so myself.

Yesterday and the night before were the most interesting periods I’ve had since I’ve been in the Army. The night before last it snowed out of a clear sky. I have never seen anything like it before. There was no moon but the stars were so bright that they reflected on the falling flakes. It was about the first pretty thing I’ve seen since I’ve been here. The next morning, believe it or not, the sun was shining, the sky was blue, and a large extinct volcano, The Batchlor, shone brightly about 20 miles away. For about the first time since I’ve been here, I felt like a human being. After breakfast, we had about an hour of close order drill in the snow with our gas masks on, and let me tell you that’s not very pleasant-my face was sweatin’ at the same time my feet and ears were freezin’. Some fun, eh? As soon as we got finished with that they took us to the gas chamber. First we had to put on our masks and go into a little room full of tear gas. That was swell, but then they told us to take off our masks and walk not run to the door. Phooey! I thought my eyes and nose were burned off. After we got out of there, they said that we would then go into the clorine chamber and then they’d turn on the gas and we’d have to put our masks on but quick. The only thing wrong was that we found out the chamber was already full of gas when we got in there. I got my mask on pronto but Remington couldn’t get his on and damn near passed out before he got out of there. After that we were given a lecture outside on the various types of gas, and they shot small doses which we walked through in order to find out how they smell. I stepped into a cloud of phosgene and wow!! We learned some pretty interesting things too. The Germans have a gas now called Nitrogen Mustard. It can’t be smelled and 4 days after getting it you drop dead. We got the same stuff, and we’ve got a new protection against it.

We have a new gas called Adamsite. It depresses the mind so that people affected with it want to commit suicide. Hot stuff, huh? After being gassed, we went to the show and there I learned that the Engineers must learn how to disembark from ships like the Marines.

In the afternoon we had inspection followed by Judo. Honest to God, we’re going to be tough babies when we finish this training.

Last night we got our hats back and they had the red & white piping on them. I went to the show.
Best Love, Bill


  1. Poison gas was not used by the major combatants in World War II (the Japanese might have used it in China). In the summer of 1943, the U.S. Army secretly shipped 200,000 mustard mustard gas bombs to the Mediterranean supposedly as a deterrent against the Germans using gas. But the shipments were a secret, such a secret that the quartermasters lost track of one load in the hold of a liberty ship. (How could it be a deterrent if it was a secret? Not my question. Historian Rick Atkinson's question.)

    On the evening of December 2, 1943, a little more than a month after Bill's letter, the Luftwaffe staged a surprise air raid on the port at Bari, Italy. Bombs hit closely packed freighters jammed with supplies. Loads of ammunition exploded in great fire balls and ships settled to the bottom of the harbor. More ships were sunk at Bari than at Pearl Harbor.

    Among the sunken ships was the S.S. John Harvey with her entire crew and the lost consignment of mustard gas. The first clue that gas was released was the smell of garlic in the port. The first man died 18 hours later. A total of 83 Allied servicement died and more than 500 suffered injuries. As many Italian civilians probably suffered and died. The real toll was very likely higher. More than 1,000 servicemen died in the raid.

    The Allies censored the news ("Damage was done. There were a number of casualties"). Winston Churchill ordered all British records on the affair destroyed. Dwight Eisenhower lied about the casualties in his post war memoir and said the gas drifted in the breeze out to sea.

  2. I will have to review my copy of Eisenhower's "Crusade in Europe" to verify the statement he made regarding the S.S John Harvey incident, but it wouldn't surprise me as his memoir was written at the height of the cold war when the obsession with security bordered on paranoia.

  3. The gas story reminds me of an incident that occured when I was in the reserves: one night when I was asleep in the back of a deuce and a half I was awakened by the faint smell of garlic. I was somewhat surprised thinking that cooking was going on somewhere at 2AM. Soon my eyes started to burn, I jumped out of the truck and started to run trying to escape it. It was sheer panic. Later it turned out we were gassed with a simulated mustard gas attack. I'll never forget the experience.

  4. Being exposed to gas, even in training must be a frightening experience. That being said, I have to believe that what Bill and his fellow soldiers were told in the lecture about the various types of gasses was exaggerated. Nowhere in my limited research did I find that nitrogen mustard gas causes a victim to suddenly drop dead 4 days after exposure or that Adamsite causes suicidal depression.

  5. I think you are correct, Greg. In my own experience at Fort Leonard Wood in 1972, I encountered drill sergeants and "gas training experts" in the field who were eager to impress upon us young recruits the importance of taking the training seriously. I think they were inclined to stretch the truth a bit. As for me, gas training enabled me to rapidly learn my service number (same as my SSN) because training protocol called for us to be marched into the gas building wearing our masks, then to await our turn (one by one) to remove the mask, and recite our name, rank, and service number before we were allowed to exit the building. Those who stumbled through this verbalization step were held up by the drill sergeant in the building until they uttered it correctly or looked like they would pass out. It was not an enjoyable experience, though memorable. -- wg

  6. I never went through the gas chamber routine, but I did experience a gas "attack." I was in college ROTC and we did weekend problems at Fort Lewis in 1968. One night a reservist who was working with us tossed a CS grenade into the position without telling anyone. CS is an extreme form of tear gas. He had purloined the grenade quite illegally and saved it for a special occasion I guess.

    We had no gas training and no gas masks. Three or four of us had been detailed to outposts and we only got whiffs of the stinky stuff. We came back to our position to find it vacant. Only the upper classmen had the gas training and our group ended up running around one of the Fort Lewis prairies. We heard our buds out in the dark screaming, "It's clear over here!" and "No, don't go there!" It was chaos. And hilarious.

    Years later, I was trained as a hazardous materials worker and I learned the extreme discomfort of wearing a respirator in a dangerous atmosphere. I can only imagine what it was like for GIs and Marines in Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom when they had to wear gas masks and MOPP suits.

  7. What happened to the reservist who tossed the CS grenade? This sounds like a very serious offense, grounds for a court-martial.


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