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4. 40 and 8 and Billets


A STORY
of
THE 305th MACHINE GUN BATTALION
77th DIVISION
A.E.F.
By

HENRY W. SMITH


CHAPTER I
WE ARE BORN
T0 BEGIN at the beginning we take you back to August, 1917, and to Camp Upton on Long Island, not far distant from Yaphank. Few people, apart from the Long Island trainmen, ever heard of Yaphank before the War but to those of the old 77th Division it came to be a by-word, as well-known as Hoboken came to be known to the World. The first commanding officer of the Battalion was Major Winnia (later Colonel) who, with a nucleus of regular army non-commissioned officers established headquarters on 11th Street between 4th and 5th Avenues in Camp Upton. In order to ascertain what material he had to start with, the Major, it is reported, asked one of the bright sergeants what he knew about paper work whereupon the sergeant replied that he knew all about paper work as he had once been a printer in Chicago. The major naturally "hit the ceiling" and we understand that the sergeant never mentioned printing again.

Men called into the service commenced pouring into camp and the Battalion soon took shape. Many of us were not sent directly to the machine gun barracks but were sent to the various infantry regiments, later being transferred. Those who were transferred will never forget the send-off given us as we left the infantry barracks to trudge up 5th Avenue in camp with our belongings in a blanket to join the machine gunners. Windows and doors were crowded with infantrymen who shouted such pleasantries as: "Suicide Club! -Seven-Minute Men, etc." These were terms that were supposed to describe a machine-gunner, statistics at that time indicating that the average life of a machine-gunner was about seven minutes after he reached the trenches. The writer, one of those transferred from an infantry regiment, recalls sitting dejectedly in the mess hall of C Company when one of the old-timers strolled in. "What's your name, buddy? Where you from? Going to be with us permanently?" -were some of the questions to be followed by: "Boy, you're in luck. You may not know it but this is one Hell of a swell outfit. We got a real battlin' bunch here and you're goin' to like it. Say, this stuff ya hear about machine-gunners is the bunk. You're with a real outfit now and we got just as good a chance of coming back as the next guy." His little "pep" talk helped a lot and as you can see I was one of those who did come back or I would not be sitting here telling you about it. Some of our gang did not come back, though. No, they didn't come back.
There is no need to burden the reader with the daily routine of a soldier. Those were hectic days and it was a case of drill, drill, pull stumps and clean mules or reverse the order if you will. Mules! The bane of our existence. How they could kick!!! They would look around at you to get the range, then lash out with one hoof right at you. No guess work with them.
The winter of 1917 was one long to be remembered. Was it cold? You walked your post on guard with tears running down your cheeks. We had a lot of fun at that, what with one thing or another and C Company men smile broadly when the Battle of the Kitchen is mentioned. Never heard of the Battle of the Kitchen? That is how C Company came to be known as the Cleaver Club but, as Kipling would say, that is another story and we will have to tell you about it some other time.

Well, sir, to hurry along a little, we drilled and we drilled and on Washington's Birthday, 1918, the Division paraded down Fifth Avenue, New York City. The parade made a decided impression and it was the general feeling that we were ready. The 305th Machine Gun Battalion was the first unit to leave camp and we will never forget the look of consternation on the faces of the infantrymen as we marched by their barracks to the gate of the camp early in the morn-ing of March 27th, 1918. Reveille was blowing and as the doughboys rolled out to line up you never saw a more startled crowd. "Where are you birds going?" they yelled.

We were on our way to the great adventure.
Upon arrival at the gate of the camp instead of beholding the old Long Island Railroad coaches we knew so well, it was a distinct surprise to see a train of New York, New Haven and Hartford cars. Speculation as to our destination was rife and while we all imagined it meant a long ride, no one expected as long a ride as it turned out to be. Right here we showed indications of having absorbed some-thing of the real soldier and that was to keep our mouths shut and to wait and see what happened. Well, we rolled along through the old Long Island scenery right into the Sunnyside yards at Long Island City. Many thought it would be a change here to ferries for Hoboken but after the usual troop-train delay we started and found ourselves crossing the Hell-Gate bridge. Up through Connecticut we went and we recall with pleasure a short stop at New Haven. We, of course, were not permitted to leave the train. Looking down one of the streets we beheld a sign-New Haven Pie Baking Company. A young lady, employed at the bakery, saw the troop-train at the crossing. She was a girl with her heart in the right place for a soldier for she hurried into the pie plant and came up the street with pies nicely cut and, as she passed beneath the windows holding up the pies, everybody dipped in. Were we down-hearted? Not yet.

The train started on again and we were favored with a view of Massachusetts. We pulled into the yards at Worcester about 1 A.M. and the news of a troop-train passing through seemed to spread like wildfire. Every engineer in the yards tied down the whistle cord to give us a reception. It was anybody's guess where we would end up on this ride. We had been riding all day and well into the night as you can see and sleep was the one thing everybody wanted. We must admit that we were not crowded aboard the train but on the contrary had plenty of room, that is, until we tried stretching out for some much needed rest. We tried folding over the seats and it looked as though this was the real trick but the backs of the seats dipped for-ward and back and the idea was abandoned. Stretching out on the floor extending across the aisle of the car was about as good a way as any until someone came along the car and we soon learned that shin-bones do not make good stepping stones. The next day was bright and clear and we were still going. We were getting up north, pretty well, and here and there the landscape was still patched with snow. At Dover, New Hampshire, we saw a contingent of men with their bags, just going to camp. What veterans we were! Into the State of Maine we rode and finally to the City of Portland. Right down along the piers until finally the train stopped and our railroading in the United States was over for a while. The prow of our ship was there towering above us in all its wartime camouflage and it proved to be the good ship Megantic, a White Star liner. Not the largest ship afloat by any manner of means but a fine ship for all that. It carried us safely through submarine-infested waters and there will always be a warm spot in our hearts for that famous old ship. What a record she has!

CHAPTER II

WE SET SAIL
AFTER detraining at Portland we received some smart instructions to empty our pockets of matches. There were to be no matches carried aboard; danger of a lighted match disclosing our presence and position to the enemy. We knew by this time how to obey instructions and away went the matches. The blue barrack bags were loaded and we were ordered up the gang-plank. Some of the outfit were fortunate in being assigned to comfortable quarters in state rooms but with others it was down, down, down to compartment K just above the propeller shafts. There isn't anything so bad but what it could be worse and a number of the men further forward were bothered by a lot of rats. We were settled finally and returned to the deck. About this time a smoke seemed to be in order but what to do or matches. All we had you will remember were out on the dock but this did not prove to be any problem as we were able to buy matches on the ship. An English sailor in charge of the canteen had plenty for sale; with thousands of matches discarded on the pier. This sort of thing did not set well, we can assure you and we felt that we had been taken over the jumps right at the start.

The ship slowly glided out of the pier to the accompaniment of a long, deep-throated blast of the ship's horn and we felt that we were on our way at last, only to find that we had to wait awhile longer. Instead of going across directly we put into Halifax, Nova Scotia, there to wait over Easter to pick up the rest of the convoy. The liner Carmania with the 302nd Engineers and nurses came up the harbor and on Monday following Easter we moved out to start across the great Atlantic. In addition to the Megantic and the Carmania we had with us a ship loaded with Chinese coolies, and another ship loaded with animals (horses and mules). We had as convoy ship the British cruiser King Alfred.

Things were pleasant enough, the weather was glorious and best of all there wasn't much to do. Boat drills, a little guard duty and trying to cultivate a taste for oleo-margarine. Not many succeeded in getting over the oleo and, in a number of instances, it was used to grease hiking shoes. We didn't hit it off any too well with members

of the British crew and we found the best way to get along was to let them alone. Strange as it may seem they didn't speak our language, The mornings were pleasant and we can still hear the D Company quartet harmonize "Good Bye My Coney Island Baby". How that bunch could sing! Who can forget Bob Reilly's bass? Speaking of those balmy mornings brings to mind a scuffle or what would have been a scuffle. It was over in a moment and no one knew exactly what it was all about. A lad in C Company named.... well, maybe it is just as well that we do not mention his name, but he said something or did something to Bugler Bert Morgan, one of the quartet. Now Bert could take a lot of kidding but there is such a thing as rubbing a man the wrong way and he was off the deck-house in a flash, making a pass at our C Company man. We grabbed Bert and he cooled off when things were explained to him. We just mention this in passing as it served to bring this C Company boy to your attention. He was a lad from a remote part of New York State and we felt that he was a boy who had not had very much schooling and had not seen much of the world. He should not have been with us but more of him later.

Well, on we sailed. Instructions were to wear life belts at all times and to take to the life boats at six blasts of the ship's whistle. A crowd of the men were together one evening in one of the cabins having the usual rough house or talking soldiering which was usually the case and we had become careless with the life belts. Suddenly the ship's horn went off. Once -twice -thrice and a fourth time. Things were confusion by then with everybody making a wild leap for the life belts which had been carelessly strewn about. Four blasts and no more and all was serene again but for a few minutes there was plenty of excitement and we assure you the belts were never again where they should not have been. The days wore on with the King Alfred running way forward and at times dropping far astern but usually steaming along between the Carmania and the Megantic.

The cruiser engaged in target practice on several occasions, shooting at a target trailed from the stern of one of the ships. When first we heard the cruiser's guns there was some excitement as we were sure they were firing at a submarine. The target had the appearance of a periscope and it was interesting to watch the shots. We seemed destined to have an uneventful trip until one day we were brought to the realization that we were actually in the submarine zone. Things seemed peaceful enough with the King Alfred riding slightly astern of the two liners and about half way between them. Suddenly there was the sound of a terrific explosion and a cloud of spray and as the cruiser slowly settled by the stern, we realized that she had been hit. She settled almost to her rails but did not go down and we understand she limped into Belfast, Ireland, safely. We had picked up the destroyers by this time, and it was a sight to be remembered watching them roll and toss and turn as they darted back and forth crossing and recrossing our bow, circling about the ship with sailors sending and receiving messages by means of the wig-wag signaling flags. During this maneuvering, depth charges were dropped and to those of us who happened to be below decks it seemed as though every plate of the ship had been shaken loose. Some claimed they saw large oil spots on the surface of the water indicating that at least two submarines had been accounted for but we were never officially advised. One may have gained the impression that we were the sole outfit aboard, but we had with us Division Headquarters and the Military Police, perhaps eighteen hundred men in all. Due to the fact that the ship carrying the animals was rather slow, we were all held back, taking twelve days to make the crossing. It was indeed a scene of rare beauty as we steamed through the Irish Sea with the shores of Ireland and Wales discernible in the distance. It was sometime around daybreak when we noticed that the ship had slowed down considerably and that the steady, heavy pulsating of the powerful engines had ceased. Arriving on deck we found that we had entered the Mersey River and were almost opposite the landing stage in mid-stream at Liverpool. As the morning wore on commuters from Berkenhead, across the river, passed almost under our stern aboard the small ferries, a sight, which reminded us of our own Hudson with the commuters from Jersey. The people aboard the ferries waved to us in friendly fashion and it could be seen that they were surprised to see us. Not long after, there was friendly rivalry between our Battalion and the engineer regiment to see who would be the first to set foot on English soil. We do not know where the M.P.s were at this time. We did not pay as much attention to them then as we did later. We won the race with the engineers but we do not say so too loudly when the engineers are around. We might pause for a moment to pay our respects to the 302nd Engineer Regiment, our own engineers. They were later to prove themselves second to none in the A.E.F. and are held in high regard by all units of the Division. The entire regiment was decorated with the Croix de,Guerre by the French Government and we are proud to have served with this regiment.

Our stay at Liverpool was of short duration for we entrained later in the afternoon. We were at Liverpool long enough, however, to hear our first English expressions. Some ladies of the W.A.A.C. (Women's Auxiliary Army Corps) sold us ginger buns and coffee and when we inquired as to the cost, we were told just Tuppence Ha'penny. We of course were weighted down with American money but these English ladies did not know what coin was the equivalent of Tuppence Ha'penny. Someone came to the rescue and told us that our American nickel would take care of things nicely. Boarding the trains, we came in contact for the first time with foreign class distinction. We were loaded into 3rd class coaches, eight men to a compartment to sit bolt upright with our packs piled in the best way possible. We were in for an all night ride across England to Dover although we did not know our destination then. During the night the train was stopped and a trainman came along the roofs of the cars and with a few sharp blows of a hammer extinguished the lights, leaving us in total darkness. We were to learn that the train had been stopped and darkened due to the presence of a Zeppelin over England. Stopping at Nottingham about midnight we stepped from the train to the station platform long enough to be served coffee and what coffee. Let's not talk about it. Back aboard the train we were again shaken into place to resume our tiresome journey. It was a weary lot of soldiers that detrained at Dover. With eyes red-rimmed from want of sleep, our sea-legs still with us, hungry and very much in need of a good wash we were in no position to bowl over our friends of the British Army with anything like a natty appearance.

We lined up in a mechanical sort of way to be marched up a high hill to the citadel overlooking the English Channel. We felt that we would get a little rest here. But no! No, we were like Napoleon's men, they marched us up the hill and they marched us down again. We were in the British barracks just long enough to unsling equipment and to get a bite to eat. Filing into the mess rooms, we dipped into a large can of tea, yes, tea, and upon arriving at our places along rough plank tables supported by iron pipe legs a Limey (English) soldier slapped a grizzled piece of corned beef before us on the bare boards. If you inquire what we ate it with, we can only answer that fingers were made before forks. Did we eat that meat? We did! Did we sit down to eat it? We did not. That, however, was not anything to what we were coming to and it is a wonder we recall it at all. There wasn't much time to be lost here. They wanted us in France in the worst way and down the hill we went to board the boats that carried us to Calais, France. We were packed pretty well into those boats, with no room to sit down but it did not matter much as the trip was a short one of perhaps an hour and a half duration. It was uneventful except that many, perhaps most of us, were quite thrilled at the realization that we were actually crossing the English Channel, gradually drawing closer and closer to the great conflict that for so long had seemed so far away.

CHAPTER III

FRANCE AT LAST

SLOWLY the boat was warped into the quay at Calais. We were the first American troops to arrive at this port and believing we had General Pershing with us, the French people tried to give us a real reception. They had a band on hand that tried to play our National Anthem but we can't prove that is what they played. Somewhere someone snapped to attention and the word was passed along.

Their intentions were good and they were making a brave effort. Wherever one looked people were in mourning and it was rather de-pressing. We disembarked and the wonder of it all was that at last here we were in France. There was not much of an opportunity to do any day dreaming as there was too much to be done. A sergeant came down the line and spoiled everything. It was "Here, give this man a hand with the Captain's bedding roll" and we were back to earth. Trust a sergeant to take the joy out of life.

Swinging away from the quay a short hike carried us to a Rest Camp on the sand dunes not far distant from the city. The camp, for the most part, consisted of conical tents and crude wooden shacks. All tents were barricaded with sand bags to the tops of the walls of the tents, a height of perhaps three feet, for the purpose of protecting the occupants from the shrapnel spray that would result from bombs dropped from enemy aeroplanes or perhaps long range artillery fire. The latter was somewhat remote but air raids were not uncommon and we experienced one our second night there, which was Sunday. It was not learned what damage had been done but it brought to us a sense of our nearness to the actual scene of the war. The German Army was making a push for the Channel ports of Dunkirk and Calais and the British Army was sorely in need of reinforcements, especially machine gunners, which was the principal reason for our being rushed to this sector. Fortunately the lines held and we were able to add to our knowledge of warfare, as it was then being waged, during a period of training with the 39th Division of the British Army.

To go back for a moment to the rest camp, so called. By the time we reached France some of the Battalion had received English coins at Liverpool and to change these and what we had of American money, we lined up at the Y.M.C.A. hut where an exchange for French francs could be effected. The writer was well fixed, having arrived with a good old American five-dollar bill. Standing in line was a big British marine and he started the conversation. "Where are you chaps from?" he asked. To which we replied, not without pride, "New York City, and State principally. Ever been to New York?" "Oh, indeed," said he with his decidedly English accent, "I lived at Sixth Avenue and Seventeenth Street for about five years." It was like music to our ears to hear the old streets mentioned and how our minds traveled back to the sidewalks of New York.

In spite of all the new sights and experiences, a soldier must eat, and mess call was real music. We filed into one of the shacks used as a, mess hall and, as one of the boys described it, we were served with a "nice" meal of sand, tea and cheese, mostly sand. The wind blows in France during early Spring days the same as it does anywhere else and on those sand dunes, it was sand in your eyes, hair and food. Anyone who has eaten spinach that has not been well cleaned knows the sensation of closing one's teeth on grains of sand. A British officer entered the mess hall just prior to the completion of the meal and, rapping on a table for attention, announced that after the meal there would be dessert. Finishing his announcement he directed us to "Carry on!" This was the first English command we had heard and, while it may have had its effect on British troops, it was wildly received by the "Indians" from the States. From one quarter it was "After this there will be beer. Carry on!" From another quarter, "After this there will be Champagne. Carry on!" and numerous others. The British officer made a hasty exit and we can only imagine what his thoughts were. Our own officers knowing and understanding us, however, secretly enjoyed the proceedings and therefore, in the language of the soldier, everything was Jake. The camp was occupied by British soldiers but to a very much larger extent by Chinamen and their dress would have made Gunga Din look like Beau Brummel. They were a pretty filthy lot. It was spoken of as a Chinese prison camp but as to why these Orientals were prisoners has never been quite clear to us. Sunday morning a hike was made to a British Supply Depot some eight kilometers away where we were presented with steel helmets and gas masks. Entering a large tent, an English soldier, who seemed to be somewhat of an expert at judging the faces, shouted out the mask sizes. It was number four, number two, number three as fast as the men filed in and, with few exceptions, he seemed to hit it right off. The helmets were heavy at first but we soon became accustomed to them and what pals they were. They would shed rain water like a tin roof. If you wanted to sit down in a muddy road, you sat in your hat. If you wanted a candlestick in a billet or a dug-out, a few drops of wax on the top and your old tin helmet became a candlestick. In short, the old tin hats were used for many purposes.

Turning in for the night wasn't particularly pleasant as we had been issued salvage blankets instead of unrolling our blanket rolls and using our own. The blankets issued had no doubt been used by wounded men as blood stains were apparent and what with the odor of the delousing process it took a little effort to overcome our qualms and to crawl under them. We had several hours to ourselves to explore Calais, observing the customs of the people and noting a number of houses that had been wrecked by German bombs. Weary was no name for it when we finally stretched out on the board floors of the tents, a dozen men to a tent, feet to the center pole, to get some much needed rest in spite of the blood-stains and the damned odor.

Monday morning it was rise and shine bright and early for a tramp across the city to trains that were waiting to carry us out into Flanders Fields for our period of training. During our stay in France when the going was rough there were times when we longed to be back to our days in Upton, but there isn't a man of the Battalion who ever expressed a desire to see that camp on the beach at Calais, with its sand and its smells, and its Chinamen.

CHAPTER IV

40 AND 8 AND BILLETS

T was a cloudy, raw, miserable morning, with occasional showers, the day we departed from the camp at Calais to hike across the city to entrain. The narrow street echoed the sound of our heavy, hob-nailed field shoes as we clattered along at route step. All the sights of the ancient French city were intensely interesting and the French people viewed us with much curiosity for, as before stated, we were the first American troops to arrive at this port. As a matter of fact, our Division was the first division of the National Army to set foot on French soil. Arriving at the railroad yards we found the trains made up and everything in readiness. This was the first sight we had of the world famous French box-cars, the forty and eight as they were known, from the fact they would accommodate forty men or eight horses. The cars are about half the size of an American car' having a stationary wheel at each corner, whereas the American car is mounted on pivoting trucks. To get back to our story, we were ordered into the cars and when they were sufficiently filled as we thought to allow for sleeping room, a lot of fellows shouted, "Enough." Much to our surprise and chagrin more men were put into each car and still more until we were standing in a real subway jam. We could not imagine riding for a very long time situated like that and we were not being asked to do so as the ride was not longer than about eighteen kilometers, although it took several hours to complete the trip. Detraining at the small village of Audrique, we hiked perhaps eight or ten kilometers, arriving in the neighborhood of a small village which we later learned to be La Panne, a name long to be remembered by 305th Machine Gunners. Each company swung off on a different road leading to the billets of the village. I recall C Company quarters distinctly and the experience of the other companies was the same elsewhere in the village. The Company was halted in the road and an officer, jerking his thumb over his shoulder, said, "Fourteen men in here." "In where?" "Right in that barn and make it snappy." Painted on the buildings were the numerals 2 horses 14 men, or whatever number the farmer or peasant, as he is called, had room for. Well, for once the gang didn't make it snappy but ambled into the structure and took a look around. It was not very inviting-looking and it was some minutes before any effort was made to loosen up to get settled. The Company continued on, dropping a few here and a few there and the last billet, Number Ninety-one, I well recall, took what was left of the Company, about seventy-two men. The men were weary and hungry as it had been pretty much of a steady grind up to this time. They just sat on their packs and mooned around for a while, trying to absorb it all. Here they were in Flanders, in the billets about which so much had been written. Were we down-hearted? Yeah! I'll say we were; the morale was shot. We were to see the time, however, when billets were something to look forward to and we can all recall just waiting for the word "Go" to make a dash into the lousy old stables to pick out a favorable spot, one that was soft, afforded a good place to stow equipment and was under a section of roof that did not leak. I say "lousy stables" advisedly for we had gotten no further than the La Panne billets before one of the companies had cooties. I won't say which company because it would be denied. After a while we all had cooties so that this was something we did not have to take into consideration when we had a chance to get under any kind of roof. The most annoying things to contend with were rats and we had a choice selection. We soon learned that it was good policy to stay away from side-walls when laying out a bunk as the rats used to scamper along the walls. One night in Billet Ninety-one one of the rats sat up on a fellow's feet. The soldier drew his feet back gently and gave that animal a sudden kick into the air, only to have it come down on his chest. What a wild scramble was there, my countrymen. If a man placed a piece of hardtack in his overcoat pocket for a nibble later on in the evening, one could gamble on it that a rat would get the nibble first, in a number of instances, gnawing through the material of the coat. When it came to sleeping we soon learned, as all soldiers before us had learned, that sleeping with the face covered was the surest way of getting some sleep without being disturbed by rats when they ran over us during the night. Uncomfortable and unsanitary you say! Most certainly but, oh, how we needed that sleep!
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