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Laundry Service in Italy

The Quartermaster Review
January-February 1944

Laundry Operations in Italy in World War II

D plus 12, Lieutenants Calvin A. Stetson, Vincent V. Pescatore, Jr., and the first platoon debarked on the beach of Salerno as the advance element of the –th QM Laundry Company, and immediately made plans to commence operation. While Lieutenant Pescatore was consolidating the platoon, Lieutenant Stetson and Technical Sergeant Doonan started out on a reconnaissance of the district, looking for a site to which to move laundry trailers and platoon bivouac. Several hours’ search of the district failed to reveal any suitable sites. None the less the medical units of the combat forces were in dire need of laundry service and immediate operation of our units was necessary. A site was chosen and we fought our first battle with our constant companion, mud. In this encounter, mud won. For the next few days the weather was comparatively mild, with little rain, but about the 28th of September the rains came in torrents. The river overflowed and the surface water brought in considerable mud, making operation at any point along the river impractical. During the night of the 28th high winds and more rain added to the poor operating conditions. It blew so hard that the evacuation hospital was put completely out of business, with tents blown down and linen and blankets soaked and covered with mud. In view of this situation a reconnaissance was made by Lieutenant Stetson of the various locations close to the combat forces, and a site was chosen at the base of a mountain with an ideal source of clear, cold, rushing water. The platoon was immediately moved over and operations resumed. In less than a week’s time all the linen and blankets from the evacuation hospital had been cleaned, despite the other demands made concurrently upon the unit.

A few days later other elements of the company arrived via LST from Bizerte, and the second platoon, under the command of Lieutenant Bob Miller, was ordered into an adjoining sector to handle the growing demands for hospital service in that area. The story of muddy water, common to the Salerno-Paestum section of Italy, still held true. Lieutenant Miller chose for a unit location the parking area of the local fire house, and with the aid of several hundred feet of hose and two large fire pumps, water was pumped from a clear stream to this location. The platoon remained in this area for about six weeks, keeping abreast of hospital and reclamation activities.

The war, meanwhile, had been pushed further up the peninsula and Colonel Joseph P. Sullivan, Quartermaster, Fifth Army, ordered Company Headquarters and two platoons to set up in a town in one of the forward areas. On the afternoon of October 14th an advanced detail selected a site within the grounds of the royal palace. Water for operation was drawn from the lagoon where once swam the swans of nobility. In an ideal location two platoons were set up in a perfectly camouflaged position, but water disposal was another thing. Several man-holes were located and the waste water was dropped into them. About a week later a general and his staff moved into the grounds of the royal palace. The day following, a native Italian caretaker questioned Master Sergeant Tom Kelly as to the manner in which the waste water was being disposed of. It seems that the general was getting soapy water in his shower. An investigation of the underground canals revealed that they supplied water to the showers and latrines of the palace. Needless to say, other disposition of waste water was immediately arranged.

After a quiet month within the royal grounds, orders came to send a platoon to an advanced area. Several reconnaissances made over the district failed to bring to light any site suitable for installation of mobile laundry units. Nevertheless the services of the platoon were urgently needed and, after a conference between the G-4 and the Engineer Officer. Infantry, — Division, it was decided that the only practical solution lay in driving a well. A site was chosen and an Engineer water supply battalion moved in with a pipe-drilling rigs. The battalion set to work, sinking a well of the artesian type to produce sufficient water to run four mobile laundry trailers and two sterilization and bath trailers attached to the platoon. In the meantime several 3,000-gallon water tanks were issued to the platoon and water was trucked by tank trucks from a point eight miles away.

The sterilization and bath section working in conjunction with this platoon has bathed and reclothed 1,000 men per day, on an average, from combat units fresh out of the fighting lines. The clean clothes, blankets, and bath provided through the cooperation of these two types of Quartermaster units have contributed very materially to the morale of our forward troops.

At about this time demands for laundry service in new areas were developing more strongly each day. The first platoon was fast winding up its operations in the Paestum-Salerno area and was called to fill this demand. A shuttle movement was conducted by pooling all available transportation, and in two days’ time the platoon was again in business in its new location. A unique situation developed here, water being taken from the top of a water-fall and diverted into the laundry trailers by gravity flow.

The campaign thus far has produced its share of trials and tribulations, and many situations not described in training manuals and publications of the past. Each platoon leader must be ready to assume the responsibility of a company commander-to act alone, to make his own decisions, establish a mess, and carry on the administrative duties common to that position. Each platoon must always be ready to handle itself as a separate installation, complete from company commander to cook’s helper. The company commander in a laundry company operating under conditions such as these has to think and function as though he were in command of a battalion.

The platoons scattered over wide areas have to be supplied with all types of organizational and operating supplies, while transportation for movement of a platoon has to be consolidated and movement accomplished with the least practical delay.  The time element is a vitally important factor, for a platoon out of operation holds up hospital, troop, or Salvage work of the Army at the rate of 8,000 pounds per day. Such figures run into staggering totals when, through mechanical break-down, lack of replacement parts, or movements, a trailer or platoon of trailers is put out of operation for any length of time. Consolidation of work by type helps considerably in getting

The utmost possible work from each laundry trailer. Since the start of the Italian campaign many thousands of pounds of clothing have been collected by the advanced and rear supply units of the regiment division, corps, and Army; processed through laundry company; resized, bundled, and turned back to Class II depots for resupply to the troops. This has saved countless thousands of tons of shipping space for other supplies so vitally needed by the Army.

This was the first laundry company to land in Africa and, more recently, the first to land in Fortress Europe. Whether battling the hot sands and mountains of Mrica or the mud and cold of Italy, regardless of terrain-the unit has performed according the highest ideals of the Service in fulfilling the mission of the Quartermaster Corps-service to the line.