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A Doughboy's French Vacation - France Nov 11, 1918

Salvage Sailor

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Salvage Sailor

A word of introduction. I wrote this piece several years ago and dusted it off today after seeing Herb Booker post some color postcards of Camp Custer. I need to add some new detail and find the original sources (letters, postcards, photos, etc) to photograph & scan, but I'll post the original piece for you folks as-is. Since I wrote this, I've found the yard-long photo of the Regiment taken at Camp Merritt on the wall of my cousins house, and I also have the small stringbag of seashells and sand scooped up at Le Harve on November 11th, 1918 when he landed in France.

A Doughboy’s French Vacation

Shortly after the United States declared war upon Germany and the Entente, my Grandfather, Earl ‘Pliny’ and one of his six brothers, Grant, enlisted in the US Army Infantry with the express object of ‘meeting their Bavarian Cousins’. They enlisted in Tulsa, Oklahoma in April of 1917 and after training for several months at Fort Sill, were assigned to the newly formed 179th Oklahoma Brigade of the 90th Infantry Division at Camp Travis, Fort Sam Houston, Texas.

The 90th was a ‘National Army’ division known as the “T & O” division, as it was formed with men from Texas & Oklahoma. The Texans did not ‘cotton’ to this and changed the nickname to the “Alamo” Division, as the members of the 180th Brigade all hailed from Texas, and of course, Texans have to let everyone know this. The brother’s trained with the 90th but when it was preparing to ship overseas to France, the Division was stripped of many personnel to fill out Regular and National Guard divisions and to form special organizations of army, corps, and S.O.S. (Service of Supply) troops.

This is when these two Oklahoma infantry privates began their wanderings in search of the war. The 90th Division departed for France with their Oklahoman comrades, and eventually met the Hun during heavy fighting at St. Mihiel & in the Meuse-Argonne offensive. The brothers were first shunted off to another National Army division, the 87th ‘Acorn’ division at Camp Pike, Arkansas, and then sent to Camp Grant, Illinois, where the 86th National Army division was forming. After spending a while in this Camp, the US Army in it’s infinite wisdom, decided that the Oklahoma brothers really belonged in a buckeye outfit. Thus, they were brought to rest in the 330th Infantry Regiment of the 83rd Division, training at Camp Sherman, Chillicothe, Ohio.

The 83rd, another ‘National Army’ division, was not your typical square AEF Formation. They had initially been formed with the intention of becoming another line division on the western front. But circumstances during the past year had taught General Pershing and the SOS, that there was not only a great shortage of shipping space to bring the troops to France, there was also a dire need for ‘Depot’ Divisions to support the AEF. The army lacked adequate training facilities, stevedores, and a catchbasin to sift through the arriving units for replacements to be sent to the line divisions suffering casualties in action. Thus, the ‘Depot’ Divisions were formed.

Pershing had been very dissatisfied with the level of training (or lack of) exhibited by his troops arriving in France. The War Department had intended to continue the training in France via a Training Section, prior to units entering the line. In February 1918, this training division became the Fifth Section of the General Staff structure – G5. Ideally, the AEF schools were to provide three months of training to supplement stateside training. The soldiers were to learn the special skills required in modern warfare—familiarity with new weapons systems, new communications techniques and new staff skills. The Army schools focused on training instructors, expecting graduates to return to units and impart their newly acquired knowledge to the troops through unit training and as instructors in corps schools. Unfortunately, the exigencies of war did not allow for this luxury, and quite often men were being sent to the front with little or no infantry skills.

The Training Division's plan envisioned a six-division corps composed of four combat divisions, a depot division and a replacement division. The depot division, located at the ports, received new soldiers and provided six weeks of basic individual training before forwarding them to the replacement division. The demand for combat divisions quickly reduced the number of depot divisions from six to two. These two depot divisions, the 41st and 83rd, processed all of the AEF replacements. The replacement division trained men of all ranks and forwarded them to combat units as required.

Getting back to the 83rd Division, they began to stage via Camp Merritt in New Jersey, and sailed to France during the late spring of 1918. Most of the division arrived in France by June 28th, 1918. Imagine their surprise, when they learned that the 83rd was re-designated the 2nd Depot division the day before, on June 27th, 1918. As they were no longer expected to join their fellow Doughboys on the line, the division was stripped of some units, which were attached to Corps & Army troops. Specifically, the 158th Artillery Brigade, 308th Ammunition Train, 308th Engineers, 308th Field Signal Battalion, 308th Trench Mortar Battery and 308th Sanitary Train. The entire 332nd Infantry Regiment & 331st Field Hospital were sent to the Italian Front in July of 1918 to bluff the Germans and Austrians into thinking the American Army was larger and more capable than it really was.

Meanwhile, back in the states, the 83rd Divisions’ 330th Regiment, with brothers Pliny & Grant, had been cooling their heels waiting for available shipping. Finally, on October 27th, they began the first leg of their ‘French Vacation’. On October 26th, 1918, Plin scribbled a quick post card to his folks, “Am loaded on cars and leave here at 4 P.M. Came to train and had inspection here on platform showing all our junk. Came to train about 1:30, Grant & I are acting Sgts over this car, being the senior men. We have 2 berths at the end of car closed off separate. Oh, we are swell guys now.”

The next day, he managed to send another post card during the trip. "10/27/18 now in East St. Louis, don’t know where we go from here. Will write again soon, some good country this morning, have been in Illinois for some time.” Their destination, was Camp Merritt, N.J., following in the wake of the 83rd division which had sailed before them, months ago.

I used to speak with my Grandfather about the ‘Great War’, and he told me about his ‘French Vacation’. The 330th finally landed in France on November 11th, 1918 at Le Havre. It was a rainy day (it was always raining he said), and he scooped up some seashells from the strand, which I still have in a small string bag. Over the next two months, he and his brother tromped up to the now quiet front, squatted in the mud, hiked here and there, never knowing why, and were basically witnesses to a gory accident scene, after the bodies had been picked up. He mentioned filth, fleas, louses, cold, hunger, devastation, and having to keep his ‘ought three’ clean, though there was and would be no call to ever fire it in anger.

By late December, it dawned upon the regiment, that the Army no longer had any need for either an orphan Infantry Regiment, nor a defunct ‘Depot’ Division. They were not being sent into Germany on occupation service, nor were they unfortunate enough to be dispatched to Archangel & Murmansk, as were other ‘Depot’ regiments, so they were just weary hungry wanderers. ‘Hurry up and wait’, this anonymous military maxim was invented in the millenniums before the Great War, but it was just as true in 1919 as it is today. The combat divisions, including their long lost comrades in the 90th ‘T & O’ division, had the shipping priority for return to the States & their victory parades.

When my Grandfather Plin passed away in 1973, I came across the following letter he had written from Camp Merritt, upon his return to the States, his postscript of their ‘French Vacation’. It is interesting for it’s mundane comments. The soldiers preoccupation with food, shelter, and comfort. The same priorities I have noted in my ancestors letters from the American Civil War & Indian Wars.

Camp Merritt, N.J.
Feb. 1. 1919

Dear Folks:

Will now write you a few lines just to see how it will act on my constitution to write a letter once more from a camp in the states instead of a mud hole in the frog country.

I know it is fine to be back in the U.S. again and I will probably be discharged and home in a few weeks, but it doesn’t seem to stir me much. Of course it is a happy thought but it seems like I think no more of it than if it was just another move such as we have been making.

Well people can be assured that I have gone through some hard days since Christmas. Now I am back where we stamp the letters and the censor’s eyes don’t get to see this.

We were at Laigne en Belin (ed: south of LeMans) Christmas and left there Dec. 31st at 3 P.M. That was a good place and we had good quarters and fine meals. I was feeling fine and Grant (ed: his brother) said I was fattening like a pig. I really believe I have lost 10 lbs since we left there. We had a trip from there to Brest in a box car, 53 men in one car and it was a small one, too.

We arrived at Brest in the evening about 4 P.M. and we did not drop our packs until 11:30. It was raining, chilly and we were all weak or sick from the trip. I saw several drop in their tracks from exhaustion on the hike out to camp. It was a hard hike. The final stretch was about 6 inches of mud. I mean six inches, too. We slept on “duck boards” for 5 nights. Duck boards are nothing more than a narrow step ladder with the steps about 6 inches apart. Believe me, it is lay still or fall off. The roof leaked and there were puddles of water on all sides of our bed. I would set my helmet over my shoes at night to keep them from getting full of water.

Then we moved to another barracks where we had bunks, two high. Grant was sick there practically all the time and I had so much trouble with my lungs that I just could keep moving. For several days we ate at a mess hall where we walked thru the kitchen out into a yard of mud from 3 to 6 inches deep. Of course, we had to stand there until we finished eating. Several times it was raining and when we finished eating our mess kits would be full of water. Later we ate at a mess hall where we could stand at a table and eat. The meals were poorly cooked but we had a plenty.

We left Brest, Jan. 17. (ed: 1919) We were there 17 days and it was detail every day and many of the nights, rain or shine, and it was mostly rain. My shoes were not dry during the 17 days and many times I went to bed soaked from my knees down. I don’t see how we kept out of the hospital.

The hike to the boat was the hardest hike we ever made. We came over on the USS FREDERICK, formerly the MARYLAND. It’s a cruiser, built in 1902. I was sick the first day or two but after that I enjoyed the trip. We took a southern route and it was warm all the way. We could lay on the deck all day and during the evening and be comfortable. We had a band on board that played once or twice a day and fine meals. We bought fruit at the canteen. We would buy about 10 cans of peaches, 6 cans of pineapple, 10 lemon snaps and when they sold out of fruit we bought peanut butter and catsup, 6 at a time. I remember one night I was almost crowded out of bed by the canned goods & lemon snaps.

At 6 A.M. it was “Heave out and trice up your bunks”. Breakfast at 8, dinner at 12, supper at 6. Between meals we would loaf on deck or play pitch. We certainly had some games too. Most of the time we would keep our hands on the cards to keep them from blowing away. Also had a library on board and we could read if we liked.

When we came into New York Harbor, early Thursday morning, the Mayor’s welcome committee greeted us. After we landed the Y.M.C.A., Salvation Army & Red Cross gave out gum, candy, chocolate candy, post cards, coffee & buns & cigarettes.

We loaded on the train for Camp Merritt at 12:10 and were put in barracks close to the place where we were in November.

About 8 P.M. Thursday evening we took all woolen equipment & clothing to the delousing house. We put all our clothing, etc. in a basket and were given a tag to keep. Then we went into the bath house, took a shower, and passed onto another building where they handed us our basket of clothing. They had been steamed and say, they were wrinkled.

Then we moved to another barracks about midnight. So different from our French homes. Good beds, electric lights, stoves (ed: he circled the word stoves), shower bath & modern in all respects. Good mess hall & regular meals.

Had ice cream for dinner yesterday. We get good fruit for desert too. We were on detail yesterday, shoveling coal into boxes and carrying bed sacks. It was not hard work and we did not march around in the mud and rain.

The weather here is fine. The nights are cool of course and there is usually a slight breeze blowing which of course is then cool but the sun shines every day and it is just right I think. Grant says the wind bites his ears but I have not been bothered yet.

Bought a big peach pie yesterday for 20 cts. Those damned Frogs would have wanted 6 francs for it ($1.20) also bought some real apples, 5 cts each also oranges at same price.

Went to Western Union at 7 P.M. and wired you collect. You see I only have about $10.00 so you can take that out of my bank account on that end. Then I went to the K.C. Hall and saw the movies. Fine hall. Also weighed there without my overcoat. I weighed 148 ¼ lbs. I guess I will weigh at least 20 lbs more than I did when I left home and I am not as heavy as I was a month ago.

About half the Co. went to N.Y. City on pass yesterday and I suppose the other half will go today. Grant & I are going to pass it up as our francs are getting low.

A picture was taken of the Co. this morning and I want to get 2 of them. (Ed: This is the yardlong of the Company on my cousins wall)

Would like to know when we will be discharged but all we can do is mark time until the time comes. We will probably be here one or two more days and then we expect to go to Camp Sherman, Ohio. Most of the boys seem to think we will be out in a few weeks and I hope it is soon.

Just come from the W.U. but there was no wire there. Guess I will get it this afternoon. Now noon. Am now at the Post Office. Must go back to dinner.

Write me at Camp Sherman Ohio and if I do not get it they will return it to you. I have not had any mail since leaving here except one letter from Lynn written Dec. 22. He said you were all well and I hope this finds you the same. I am feeling fine and you need not worry about me at all. I lived thru that trip to France so I think there is no chance of even catching a cold over here.

Hoping to be home soon, I am, Regards to all,
Your Son

Earl P. Xxxxxxxxxx
Co. C. 330th Inf.
83rd Division

P.S. Part of the 83rd Paraded N.Y. City and we may be called on to walk the streets of some Ohio city before we don civilized clothing again.


Ed: Letter is handwritten on Stationery from Knights of Columbus War Activities (has American Flag and K of C Shield), following pages are from Army and Navy Young Men’s Christian Association “with the colors”, (has American Flag and YMCA Logo), printed on bottom of pages – To the writer: save by writing on BOTH side of this paper. To the folks at home: Save food, Buy Liberty Bonds and War Savings Stamps.


PS – The two postcards are pictured below, along with another one from Camp Grant, Illinois. On this card he wrote, “This is one of the things we do every day at drill and the ones I have marked with a X have there mess kits in their hands.”

My Doughboy Grandfather, ever the chowhound.


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