«An Unbuttoned and Illustrated Story of Captain Walter Felson’s World War II Experiences Judith Felson Duchan July 7, 2015 Late in 1942, Walter ...»
An Unbuttoned and Illustrated Story of Captain Walter Felson’s
World War II Experiences
Judith Felson Duchan
July 7, 2015
Late in 1942, Walter Felson left his fledgling medical practice in Greenfield, Ohio to
join the US military’s effort to stop Germany, Italy, and Japan from taking over the
It was nearly a year after the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor (December 7,
1941) and after the US had officially entered World War II. (The US declared war on
Japan a day after the bombing.) !
Walter Felson closed up shop and left Greenfield on September 18, 1942.
With him was his wife Roslyn Marcus Felson. Most called her Ros. It seemed like only yesterday when he proposed to her. But it wasn’t just yesterday, it was 1926-seventeen years earlier! (They were married in November, 26, 1930.) !
!2 Camp Grant, September 1942 to January 1943 Walter and Roslyn also took their two young children, Judy (4 years old) and Elaine (2 ½) and a car full of their belongings. They headed for Camp Grant in Rockford, Illinois. There is one letter from Walter to his brother Chippy about this period of his
training. It was written on October 7, 1942. Here is the first paragraph:
They’ve really been keeping us busy here. We start school at 7:53 and end up at 17:00 with one hour off for lunch. That means 8 hours of lectures - one of these hours being drill. At the end of a day you know you’ve been to school. In addition to this we are also given home work to do almost every night which takes up at least one hour of time. It is a physical impossibility to absorb all that is thrown at us, but the instructors realize this and apparently are merely making sure that we are wll exposed to the material, get a smattering of knowledge so that we’ll be able to understand what we do after we leave here, and then expect us to continue in our quest for army knowledge after we leave here.
Camp Shelby, Hattiesburg, Mississippi In January, 1943 the family headed to Hattiesburg, Mississippi and that it was near Hattiesburg, at Camp Shelby that Walter’s training began in earnest.
Camp Shelby was HUGE! Here is how it is depicted in Wikipedia.
Wikipedia: The Camp Shelby of World War II contained 360,000 acres with an additional 400,000 acres leased for maneuver space. In all, over a thousand square miles were in use for training. Initially, troops using Camp Shelby were housed in tents (over 14,000), forming the largest tent city in the world.
Here is but one small part of thecamp—the tents for one infantry regiment.
At Camp Shelby, Walter was inducted into the US fifth army’s, 85th Infantry Division.
The 85th Division, nicknamed the Custer Division, had lots of subdivisions, including the 310th Medical Battalion, which was Walter’s group.
Walter was also given an army serial number—01693630. Oh, and there was one more way he was able to identify himself. He was given dog tags that were stamped with his name, social security number, blood type, and religion. His religion was shown as H. That stood for Hebrew, indicating that he was Jewish.
The Custer Division was an unfortunate nickname for the 85th Infantry Division. It was named after General George Armstrong Custer, the one who took his last stand at Little Big Horn in the American Civil War. That is to say, Custer died while putting up a brave fight, but he died in battle nonetheless—not something soldiers assigned to the 85th Infantry Division would want to have happen to them.
A more appealing and affectionate nickname than Custer Division for those in the 85th Infantry Division was Polar Bears. Here is what Walter may have looked like in his newly assigned Polar Bear outfit.
Walter spent the next several months at Camp Shelby training to be a military man.
He was happy to be able to go home to his family every night, except for the occasional overnight maneuvers and one three- week stint away. Even though it was a strenuous undertaking, things weren’t so bad. He and Roslyn even took a trip to nearby New Orleans together during this time that he was stationed at Camp Shelby.
After a couple of months in Mississippi, the Polar Bears of the 85th Infantry Division were primed for even more intense training. In March, he was given a respite before his next training maneuver. He, Ros and the kids returned to their humble abode in Greenfield.
Their daughter Judy remembers making this trip with a pig in the car. Is this a fantasy? Maybe. Why would they bring a pig home? Where did they get it? What were they planning to do with it? It doesn’t make sense. Must be a false memory.
She must have imagined it.
During their leave, they had a family reunion in Cincinnati, Ohio. They took a picture of Walter, along with his three brothers, from left to right, Chip (Henry), Ben, Walter, Leo.
The Felson women (Sophie, Louise, and Edie) and brother Irv kept the home fires burning while their siblings were away, as did the wives and children of these four Felson patriots.
Camp Polk, Leesville Louisiana After his leave, Walter headed for his new training site in the swamps of Louisiana— without the family. He was stationed at Camp Polk, near Leesville, Louisiana in the DeSoto National Forest. According to Walter, this was “one of the most godforsaken spots on earth” (April 20, 1943) The rigorous training involving war-like exercises (they were called “problems”) interspersed with a day or two of rest. The swamps were full of bugs, snakes, and
now soldiers. Here is what Walter says about his buggy swamp experience:
Camp Pilot Knob, Yuma, Arizona In late May of 1943 Walter’s 85th Division headed to a new training site on the west coast. Some traveled in a convoy of military vehicles, some went by train. Walter traveled through Texas, Arkansas and Oklahoma in an army convoy, and then boarded a train for a three-day jaunt to Camp Pilot Knob located in the Mojave Desert near Yuma, Arizona.
Walter spent the next two weeks training at Camp Pilot Knob. It was grueling. The heat was the main problem. Walter described other trials during his stay in the desert—crawling across terrain on his elbows, under live ammunition; getting lost without water on desert maneuvers (four soldiers died); and using latrines that sometimes exploded because of a chemical mixture put in them to lessen the stench. Shown below is a man burned from a latrine gas explosion.
Another desert hazard were FLOODS! Amazing! Floods in the desert?! Walter’s vehicle got stuck in a small river one day during a flash flood. The river had just been a dry gully before the unexpected downpour. He made it out ok. Just.
Camp Coxcomb, Freda, California On August 15, 1943 Walter and his battalion moved from Camp Pilot Knob to another training site 200 miles away--Camp Coxcomb, in Freda, California.
Calexico was quite a distance from Camp Coxcomb, so the family set out to find a new place to live, nearer Walter’s new training base. They found a house in the hills of Beaumont, California just outside of Palm Springs. It was still a long drive for Walter. Camp Coxcomb and the Beaumont house were 150 miles apart.
!10 Late in September, Walter Felson became Captain Walter Felson. Was he happy about this? After all, it was a promotion. Nooooo.
I have always said I would rather be a 1st Lt. in a clearing company than a captain elsewhere in an infantry division medical setup. It seems that luck has not been with me, for two days after I received my appointment as a captain I was transferred to the collecting company. As you know, this is the medical installation lying between the battalion aid station and the clearing company. Usually it means being about 3 miles behind the front line. It will entail much more moving and a much more tedious life than that in the clearing station, but still is very much better than a battalion aid station (September 1, 1943).
Collecting companies, like Walter’s, provided emergency treatment of casualties being evacuated from the battlefield. They were transported from the aid station (see the diagram below). Casualties were treated either at the Seriously Wounded or Slightly Wounded stations in the Collecting Company. Gas Casualties were treated at some distance from other casualties in order to prevent possible contamination. After treatment, the wounded requiring further evacuation were sent to the Clearing Company (Walter refers to it as a station). The slightly wounded who were fit to return to duty, were directed back to their units at the front lines. Walter’s job as captain was to organize and oversee the transport, sorting, and treatment of the soldiers injured in the front lines.
Here is a picture showing the different companies of the 310th Medical Battalion that Walter is referring to. He was assigned to be Captain of the guys in Collecting Company C. Sounds like a song title, doesn’t it?
Fort Dix, Trenton, New Jersey In October, 1943 the entire 85th Infantry Division was reassigned to the east coast, readying to sail overseas. The soldiers of the 85th Infantry Division, including those in Walter’s Company C and his 310th Medical Battalion left Camp Coxcomb and traveled cross country to Fort Dix, in New Jersey—25 miles from Trenton.
Walter did not travel with his fellow soldiers. Instead he drove cross country with Ros and the kids. They were given two weeks to get to Fort Dix, so they took their time, stopping to visit relatives along the way.
They visited the Abramson family in Springfield, Missouri—Beth had just come home from the hospital after being born; the Ben Felson family in Indianapolis, Indiana (Steve and Nancy, only, the others weren’t born yet) and the Henry (Chip) Felson family in Battle Creek, Michigan (Lois and Jane). The last of their family visits was in Cincinnati where they saw Irv and Rosalyn Felson (Nancy was about to be born), and Sophie, Phil, Bob and Alan Travis, and Edith (Edie) Felson. Too bad that Leo and his new bride Evy were so far away in Corpus Christi, Texas.
Their last stop on the way to Trenton was for an overnight in their home town, Greenfield, OH. They said goodbye again to friends and patients who dropped by.
My patients have not yet forgotten me, and kept me busy dropping in on me and telephoning. It made me feel good and I’m more sure than ever that I’ll return to that town to practice despite having seen most of the country (October 25, 1943).
The family continued on to Fort Dix, stopping to sightsee in Washington D. C. along the way. They arrived in the Trenton area on November 11, 1943. They found a seven-room house in Lakeland, NJ, a town with a strong Jewish community. They stayed there for a month, taking an occasional sightseeing trip to New York City.
Men in the 85th Infantry Division were scheduled to depart for overseas in late December. Ros was no longer allowed to travel with Walter, so she made arrangements to return to Greenfield with the kids. Irv Felson, Walter’s brother, came to Trenton to drive with Ros and the kids back home. What a nice man! What a good brother! What a terrific uncle! What a sad time!!!
They all said their goodbyes and Irv, Ros, and Judy and Elaine headed back to Ohio, with tears in their eyes.
Walter spent the last days before shipping out getting his stuff together and doing captain-like jobs. One job was to read letters the men in his company wrote home.
He served as censor to make sure the soldiers in his charge didn’t give away military secrets.
Some of them wrote four or five almost identical love letters to different girls professing their unfailing devotion and hoping the girl will be true to them so that they can be married when he gets home. Several of them have mistresses, the prize one of whom is one with his wife and his mistress living together while he is away. The saddest case is the youngster who is in love with a girl who had a boyfriend before he met her, and who refuses to let him consider her as his girl…His heart is breaking (December, 20, 1943).
On December 24, Walter sailed for Casablanca, Morocco probably on the USS General William A. Mann, a ship built in 1943 to carry US troops in WWII. Operating out of Norfolk, Virginia, the ship delivered troops and supplies to North Africa making four successive round-trip voyages to Casablanca, Morocco and one to Oran, Algeria before mid-May 1944. The ship had a capacity of 5,000 plus men. It’s likely that Walter Felson was on this ship on one of its trips. His voyage was one way though, not round-trip.
North Africa On January 3 Walter arrived in Casablanca. He writes about his first impressions, mentioning the colorful dress, and the turbans, (and the dirtiness) of the Arabs, the red fez caps of the French soldiers, and, oh my, the herd of camels being driven by natives on small jackasses. He was amazed.
The company stayed in tents just outside of Casablanca at Camp Don B. Passage, named after the first American soldier killed in the invasion of North Africa. This was just a stopping off place on the way to the next camp in Algeria.
The 500 mile distance between the camp in Morocco and the training site in Algeria took three days by train. The cars in the train did not have passenger seats. Rather they were more like cattle cars, carrying 30 men in each. Here is Walter anticipating
discomfort he may soon experience: