On the Heals of the Assault Force
Captain William Foster, Jr. Q.M.C.
The Quartermaster Review
Quartermaster Service Company in North Africa & Italy in WWII.
This is the story of a Service Company which went through the pains of activation, the trials of organization and training, and, green and untried, was ordered overseas.
We didn’t land with the assault forces in Casablanca but we were not very far behind them. Present, meanwhile, were excitement, thrills, and eagerness to get to work. To gain the reputation of dependability was our main desire.
Being ordered off on our own to Safi was a real test. Request had been made for the best potential labor company available, to tackle a tremendous job-a job of such importance that, should it fall, supplies would soon block the port of Safi, render it useless, and greatly slow up the Allied campaign.
Camp was set up quickly on arrival at Safi and our work started that night. Our first look at the docks was both discouraging and encouraging. Material was plied high everywhere; nothing was moving from the docks or from the cargo ships onto the piers; things were at an apparent standstill. Cargo ships were still outside the pier awaiting their turn to be unloaded, where they were still vulnerable to enemy submarines. But the quantity of supplies was such as to assure us of success in our campaign, provided they could be kept moving, and impressed us with the productive and organized might of the United States. Someone else had done his job well. Were we doing ours!
Two hundred sturdy, strong-muscled young Americans attacked the mountain of mixed material. Dumps were established inland. Transportation was scarce but that which was available was used twenty-four hours a day. Loading and unloading time was reduced to a minimum. Order came out of confusion, and another broken link in the chain of supply was repaired. Supplies started rolling from the transports across the docks, into dumps, and forward into combat areas.
Soon our company was charged with the responsibility of all work aboard the freighters. Supplemented with Arab labor, we took complete charge as soon as the freighters moored into the piers. Decks were cleared and hatches opened. Every conceivable supply necessary for well equipped armed forces came out of those ships. Some items were easy to move; other equipment was heavy and bulky, and getting it out required thought.
The tremendous growth of the Merchant Marine in such a short period of time naturally had not given the men opportunity to learn their jobs too well. They were really greener at their jobs than we were at ours. We had to take over completely. By the trial and error method we soon learned to rig, to make proper use of booms, and run the ship’s gear. Of course we made some mistakes, but no material damage was done. Supplies moved off as quickly as the machinery could handle it. Machinery was worked beyond its limitations; consequently work was occasionally stopped to allow the motors to cool off.
The pressure prevailed through the middle of January. Then we went ashore, dug in, and helped reorganize permanent depot installations. We warehoused and issued Class I, II, III, and IV supplies. Throughout the whole period work progressed day and night, Sundays included, with twelve-hour shifts and no time off.
February 12th brought us orders to move by rail to Oran; thence by motor convoy to Tebessa, there to join the United States II Corps. We had a two-week lay-over in Oran. We quickly took advantage of this by jumping into M.B.S. supply dumps, where we were commended for an excellent job and thanked graciously for lending a hand over a rough period.
Arrival at Tebessa brought us to within fifteen miles of the enemy, and we had our first experience of being bombed. The Jerrys came over and dropped a few bombs, endeavoring to demolish the railroad yards. Their aim was poor and they did no damage, but they certainly brought the reality of war home to us.
The company attacked the supply problem with renewed vigor and unloaded freight from trains onto motor convoy. Now we were beginning to realize the importance of careful handling and proper segregation of supplies. When those behind us did their job properly, our job was simplified. There was far less confusion. Bottlenecks were eliminated and profitable enemy targets reduced to a minimum.
One night orders came through for us to send out a detachment of fifty men and one officer. They were to be attached to a Railhead Company and to move under the cover of darkness to an unknown destination. The mission was not too dangerous, provided absolute secrecy could be maintained. The men were impressed with the seriousness and importance of this mission. As a result of perfect discipline the movement was completed that night. By dawn of the next morning a forward supply dump of rations and gasoline, well camouflaged, had been established and was ready to issue. We had shortened the supply line. Supplies in a large quantity were now made available for the front lines, almost within carrying distance. The rear echelon of the company did a splendid job of segregating and loading, which facilitated handling in the forward area.
Then came the day when we were ordered to Gafsa. We were within seven miles of the enemy on the edge of the desert. Hot sun and terrible sand storms added to our woes. Here we really came face to face with Jerry’s air force. German bombers came in at night over our gas dump and caused us some anxious moments. However, these were negligible in comparison with that one night when they came in at the ration dump at 2300 hours, dropped flares, then bombed and strafed continuously until 0400 hours. We had been prepared for just such an occasion and were well dug in. We were very lucky and suffered no casualties. At 0405 hours work was resumed. The harder we worked the less time we had to think of what could have happened or what could happen in the future. We built up a tremendous supply point.
Then came the miraculous movement of the entire II Corps from the Southern sector to the Northern sector. It was accomplished in five days, complete with supply installations and ready to proceed into Tunis and Bizerte. This was one of those impossible things that couldn’t be done. II Corps did it! And, as a result, Jerry was completely surprised. This was the turning point that caused the quick surrender of German forces in Africa. Credit for the complete success of this tactical move was due in large part to excellent labor cooperation.
From here on through the campaign we were always on the heels of the combat teams with their needed supplies. Sometimes we were spread out in four different sectors, always having to handle gas, rations, and ammunition. Often it was a straight sixteen- or eighteen-hour day. And at other times there were opportunities to catch up on a little rest. The men always knew that they were playing an important part in the drama of war. We had often heard complimentary gossip from front line troops to the effect that they didn’t have to worry now about their supplies coming through because we were right behind them doing the job. We were dependable. One can’t put an estimate on what that reputation was worth to us.
When the campaign ended we were in Mateur. We were detached from II Corps and attached to E.B.S. It seemed that another big offensive was due and preparations had to be made quickly. We were charged with the installing of an enormous ration supply depot. Rations were received mixed; had to be sorted, camouflaged, warehoused, and issued again. Supplies came to us from ships direct from the States and more supplies over the road, all the way from Casablanca. The weather was exceedingly hot–110 degrees in the shade. Men worked steadily from 0700 hours to 2130 hours for three weeks. The pressure was put on, but they stood up remarkably well under this pressure.
We had wonderful grandstand seats to watch the Jerrys’ bombardment of Ferryville and Bizerte and our own display of fireworks. Naturally we were quite thankful that another area was the target and not our own. On August 25th, alert and movement orders came for us, to be staged in Oran prior to a movement by water to another unknown destination. We joined one sister company and once again we were off to new adventure.
Life on board was civilized again. We enjoyed decent quarters and delicious food. We had ice cream for the first time since November. We received the news of Italy’s capitulation the night prior to our landing on Italian shores. However, those on board discounted it and anticipated plenty of German trouble.
We debarked from our transport onto assault boats at 1330 hours on D Day. Movement of our company and our sister company was completed and all personnel were ashore by dusk. For seven days that beach was bombed and strafed. We endured fifty-six actual air raids as recorded by the Navy during that time. All our time, day and night, was spent unloading barges, LST’s, ducks, etc., or moving supplies back off the beach to establish dumps. Work stopped only when the enemy attacked by plane. Work progressed through water, mud, and deep sand and dust, but we had held the beachhead.
One night word, by way of gossip, came to us sixteen Panzer Divisions were expected to break through and that everyone would be ordered to back up the lines. The next morning we found the truth to be that the 16th Panzer Division was expected to try a breakthrough. What a difference! There wasn’t any sleep that night for anyone.
After the first ten days, organization became apparent. We started to organize permanent dumps of all kinds and the process of forward movement started again. We moved from Paestum to Avellino, from Avellino to Piana di Caiazzo, from Caiazzo to well within artillery range in Vairano Caianello. There set up Army ration and gas dumps. We were in the position of a tennis net, with opposing forces batting artillery shells back and forth over our heads. There were a few net balls but, fortunately for us, they were Jerry duds.
Then came the long rains. Fields and farmlands were out, for our purposes. Roadways and blowout railroad sidings had to be used for dump installations. These furnished a new type of problem, soon solved and now these installations work perfectly. Credit must go to all our SOS, to the Army Quartermaster, and to G-4, for the continual movement supply, but credit also must be extended to the troops who have learned the hard way to tackle any and all problems and obstacles and keep plugging. We have found out the important part that Engineers, Infantry, Air Force, Signal, Artillery, and all other forces play in the war, and they, we believe, know value of good labor behind them. For our part we believe that the expression “the fighting Quartermaster” is no misnomer. It’s taken fight, courage, faith, hope and the love of God to bring us through so far, and, He being willing, we will rid the world of Nazi, Jap, and Fascist tyranny.