June 21, 1943 – 75 years ago in a WW2 M.A.S.H. Unit

René’s journal entry for June 21, 1943…

            Today we left at 7:00 A.M. and when we stopped for gas at 8:30 A.M., Roy went to a phone and soon who did we see coming towards us in an ambulance, but Paul Stratte. Gee, we were all sure glad to see him, and vice-versa. We had quite a chat with him while the boys filled the trucks up with gas and oil.

           Had lunch that day at Oujda and it was plenty hot. It was there that we had to change our watches an hour ahead. We had to stay there for an hour and a half because the bloomin’ water point was quite a little ways off the main highway and we definitely needed water.

          The water and gas situation all along was a headache because for some reason or other they never seemed to have the two near to each other – utterly stupid, for it certainly wasted a lot of time for the various convoys.

          We were going to stop that second night at a little town of Tlemcen but as it was only 4:30 P.M. when we got there we persuaded Roy to have us go on to the next place, despite the fact that the boys from the 8th were kicking some, because they thought we were driving too many hours during the day. One of their officers was just getting over a pilonidal cyst and the sitting was apparently sort of tiresome for him.

          But our boys were in good spirits and figured there was no sense sitting around a little dump in the heat when it was considerably cooler riding. So, we went on to Sidi Bel Abbes that night, arriving at 7:00 P.M. This time we were quartered in an old racetrack. There they had water and latrines all set up and it was pretty good. Again, it was too hot to put up pup-tents, so again tied to the truck with netting, and slept comfortably.


Watch for my next message on
June 22

Click on map to enlarge
Day 2 – Taza, Morocco to Sidi Bel Abbes, Algeria
7:00AM to 7:00PM
Cohn’s Courageous Commandos traveled 239 miles

When the convoy stopped for gas, René ran into Paul Stratte – shown here together at Camp Pickett, Virginia back in the fall of 1942.

June 22, 1943 – 75 years ago in a WW2 M.A.S.H. Unit

René’s journal entry for June 22, 1943…

            June 22, we left at 6:25 A.M., and this was our shortest day, for we only traveled 205 miles, having gone 239 miles the second day. The reason we stopped early (4:40PM) this day was that we had some tough hills on the next stretch and we didn’t want to be too tired. We were ahead of schedule and a lighter day was welcomed by some. We stopped at a place called Affreville. What a place!

            The bivouac area was in what was apparently an Arab marketplace – there was water, not drinking water, and plenty of bloomin Arab urchins around. We had quite a time keeping them away. We were right next to a French garrison of native troops and some of the troops came over and visited, and we carried on quite a conversation with some of them. They were spellbound when Peter turned on his radio, and it was all we could do to get them to leave when we wanted to go to sleep. We had to do it politely, so with our meager French, it was plenty difficult. However, we finally got to bed – this time I slept in the truck and Roy slept on top of the trailer. The truck was very comfortable, I found.


Watch for my next message on
June 23

Click on map to enlarge
Day 3 – Sidi Bel Abbes to Affreville (now Khemis Miliana), Algeria
6:25AM to 4:40PM
Cohn’s Courageous Commandos traveled 205 miles

While they were bivouaced at Affreville (now Khemis Miliana, Algeria), troops from the French garrison nearby came over for a visit. René notes that “they were spellbound when Peter turned on his radio.”

June 23, 1943 – 75 years ago in a WW2 M.A.S.H. Unit

René’s journal entry for June 23, 1943…

          Today we left even earlier, at 6:15 A.M. and I drove over the tough winding hills. There were really some tough ones, hair-pin turns and all. Of course, with those trucks and the load, one couldn’t go over 15 m.p.h. up any of those good inclines. With the road rather narrow, and oncoming traffic every so often, it was quite a little job.

          I had gotten into the habit, ever since the first day, of riding with the gun-turret cover off, so that I could jump up on the seat and see what was going on behind us – how the other trucks were following, etc. Roy, after that first day, stayed in the rear except through cities and when we came to control points, gas points, etc. As a consequence it was up to me to see that we didn’t outrun the rest of the trucks.

          When we were going around turns it was sort of difficult — for we would only get a glimpse of one or two trucks every so often if we were going in the opposite direction from them around a canyon wall, etc. When I was driving, the fellow with me stood up and told me what was going on. Yes, we had quite a system. This was especially useful in passing other trucks or convoys, for I could see ahead of the other trucks – i.e. over them, and could tell whether we were going to get stuck or meet opposition or whether it was safe to pass. I could also motion our other trucks on in the same way.

          We had quite a time passing some of the convoys – actually we weren’t supposed to pass other convoys without special permission, but as we were a small convoy and could travel, therefore, much more rapidly than most, it was silly for us to stay behind one that we could very obviously and easily pass. The British and French convoys, especially, traveled slower than we did, and, as luck would have it, we seemed to meet them on the turney-twisty roads. It was then that riding in the turret really came in handy.

          That fourth day we passed quite a strange British convoy, one that seemed to be made up mostly of smoke producers. We landed in the town of Setif at 7:30 P.M. that evening, having traveled 257 miles. The bivouac area was pretty nice. It was a great open field that had latrines and a few small round domed huts. By these huts there were faucets and stands where one could wash very conveniently. There was also good drinking water from a faucet. That night many of the officers slept in one of these buildings, but Roy and I stuck to the outdoors. Roy in his trailer-hut and me in the truck with Jim Hamilton.


Watch for my next message on
June 24

Click on map to enlarge
Day 4 – Affreville (now Khemis Miliana) to Setif, Algeria
6:15AM to 7:30PM
Cohn’s Courageous Commandos traveled 257 miles

René is making good use of the truck license he got just 5 days before the convoy of Cohn’s Courageous Commandos drove away from the rest of 59th Evac Unit in Casablanca.

June 24, 1943 – 75 years ago in a WW2 M.A.S.H. Unit

René’s journal entry for June 24, 1943…

          June 24 we left bright and early at 5:25 A.M. Roy would always tell us the night before at what time we were expected to pull out and then, long before that time would arrive in the morning, he would be prancing around like a caged lion hurrying everyone up so that, in the end, it turned out that we would be leaving anywheres from 15 to 45 minutes ahead of schedule. But, that is Roy — he’ll never be different. Some of the guys moaned a bit about this, but for my part, I was all for it.

            Some of the time, Roy would give instructions to me that I would misinterpret and naturally catch hell from him. Then at other times he would try to signal what he wanted us to do and his signals were not explicit enough or were confusing, so that we would end up where he did not want us. But all in all we got along very well. I certainly think that it was no little feat to bring a convoy like ours that great distance with inexperienced drivers, none of whom knew anything about convoy driving, over roads about which no one knew anything — to bring them all that distance without the slightest mishap to vehicle or personnel, and to do it in record time. Yes, I think that not only Roy, but all the drivers deserve a great deal of credit.

            That fifth day was quite a day. We were on the road for a little over 15 hours and yet only traveled some 242 miles. Reason: we ran into plenty of traffic and it rained some when we were way up in the mountains. At two different points, British Bren-gun carriers (long flat trailers) skidded in the mud and had a devil of a time getting back on the road. The second one actually turned over and managed to block the passage for a long string of trucks that were both in front and behind ours. We had to stop and wait for them to clear the road, and it was most annoying because of the heat, the long hours, etc. When one is on the go it isn’t bad, but if one has to wait somewhere in the middle of a trip like that, it gets awful annoying.

            One of the interesting things we passed that day, and also on some of the other days, were the convoys of returning prisoners. One rarely saw a guard with them. There would be whole truck-loads of prisoners and the only allied soldiers would be the driver and perhaps one guard for every two trucks. No, neither the Italians nor the Germans were at all anxious to part company with the trucks that were eventually taking them to the U.S. Can’t blame them, can you? We talked to some of the guards when one of their convoys was stopped along side of ours, and they said that when they stopped for rest, they never had to look around for the prisoners to be sure they were all back in the truck; for, if they started out without a couple of them, the prisoners would come running and yell so they could climb back aboard.

            At one place we bumped into a fellow who had been guarding some 30 prisoners, and when he counted them the next morning he somehow found that he had collected 18 more during the night for the count was then 48.

            At the end of the fifth day we found ourselves in the little town of Chardiman or something like that. [Probably Ghardimaou] The only field we could find to bivouac in was pretty well fertilized and was rather bumpy. But finally we found a portion of it that was not so bad and all hit the blankets early – Roy again on the trailer and me in the truck.


Watch for my next message on
June 25

Click on map to enlarge
Day 5 – Setif, Algeria to Ghardimaou, Tunisia

5:25AM to 8:30PM
Cohn’s Courageous Commandos traveled 242 miles

Today was an especially long day due to traffic and rain in the mountains. Also, René notes, “At two different points, British Bren-gun carriers (long flat trailers) skidded in the mud and had a devil of a time getting back on the road. The second one actually turned over and managed to block the passage for a long string of trucks that were both in front and behind ours.” Pictured above is a British Bren-gun carrier.

June 25, 1943 – 75 years ago in a WW2 M.A.S.H. Unit

René’s journal entry for June 25, 1943…

            On the last day the convoy didn’t leave so early, getting our start only at 7 A.M.   From there on in we began to see plenty of interesting things — bomb craters, cemeteries, and German, Italian and British tanks, trucks, etc. wrecked by the side of the road. There was very little British equipment and much less American equipment — apparently all of that had been hauled away already. But boy there were plenty of German tanks, trucks and planes to be seen. We passed several parties of prisoners working on the roads and they seemed to be doing a good repair job under the supervision of only one or two guards to any large group.

            We got to Bizerte shortly before 1 P.M. and when Roy inquired as to where we were supposed to go, the MPs as usual knew nothing at all. So, he had to wander around town until he found some sort of a headquarters at which he could get some information as to where the man was to whom we were supposed to report.

            While Roy was doing that hunting, we parked on a side-street and broke out the lunch. What a place Bizerte is — there is really nothing left of it. There can’t be more than fifty of the natives living there anymore — there isn’t one house that is anywheres near intact — and we saw all this those few minutes we were there. Our bombers really did a job there, and strangely enough they managed to miss the places that later were important for us, i.e. the harbor installations, barracks, roads, etc. Yes, those boys are O.K.

            Finally Roy came back and led us to the place we were to stay. It was right on the water-front in what used to be a hangar. There was plenty of evidence of bombing there, with mostly French and German wrecked planes all over the place. However, some semblance of order had been made and the wreckage was pretty well piled up in specific spots.

            We were given cots and the boys quickly set about putting them together, putting up their mosquito netting, and sweeping up the place. They really went at the work in a hurry – none of that gang afraid of work! Some of the boys made a bee-line for the water for a swim, but I kind of stuck around in the hangar to help get things organized, as Roy had gone off to find out all the dope he could.

            That evening we got a pretty good idea of what our duties were going to be. We saw some of the ships upon which we were to be put, and anticipated plenty of action. We were told to arrange things in groups of three men to one officer. Roy, it was decided, was to rather arbitrarily pick the men for each officer. He picked the cream of the crop for himself, but as all the boys that we brought with us are top men, it really worked no hardship on anyone.

            Despite the fact that we had been told that they had been having nightly air-raids, we were completely un-disturbed that first night in Bizerte.

Cohn’s Courageous Commandos covered 1,312 miles on their 5-1/2-day journey from Casablanca, Morocco to Bizerte, Tunisia.


Watch for my next message on
June 26

Click on map to enlarge
Day 6 – Ghardimaou to Bizerte, Tunisia

7:00AM to 1:00PM
Cohn’s Courageous Commandos traveled 120 miles

Aerial view of Bizerte

On June 25, Philip Westdahl (back in Casablanca) writes: “We are hit pretty hard by an epidemic of diarrhea most likely on a dysentary basis. Half of the remaining officers and about 20 men are sent to 66th Station hosp. today. In the meantime the rest of us continue to sit on our proverbial behinds waiting for the next move. All tents with the exception of actual living quarters and mess tents have been torn down and all equipment is packed and segregated into piles ready for loading.”

June 29, 1943 – 75 years ago in a WW2 M.A.S.H. Unit

June 29, 1943
No. 44

Bizerte, Algeria
(His parents still think he is in Casablanca)

Dear Folksies,    

          Please excuse the delay in writing – it has been unavoidable. I imagine that Lois has written to you in the interim, so that you haven’t been entirely without news from this side of the world.

          A couple of days ago I bumped into one of the boys from Lois’ Uncle Tom’s outfit. Tom is no longer with them, having been ill – overwork, his blood pressure, etc. He’s been reclassified, and is now headed for Washington, where he is to have some pretty good position in the War Dept.

          Have been eating pretty darn well the last few days, but in general have taken things very easy. However, prior to these last few days I was kept plenty busy and consequently was not able to get any letters off to you. Roy kept us on the go pretty much, but naturally we didn’t mind. He is really swell to work under.

          We’ve done some more swimming, once in nice fresh water, but more recently in water and sand similar to Carmel. Nice warm, clean water. There’s nothing that makes one feel any better on these hot days than to be able to go swimming. How’s the Tahoe water this year?

          Bumped into Stratte several days ago and he intended to rejoin the boys in a couple of days. He acquired a cute native pup who followed him all over the place.

                                                                                                                                                  Loads of love,



Watch for my next letter on
July 4

René can’t’t tell his parents that he is in Bizerte, Algeria while Lois is with the rest of the unit back in Casablanca. Surely René is missing Lois – pictured here in the middle with fellow nurses Ann Scheisman on the left and Gert Brazil on the right.

René tells his parents that he bumped into Paul Stratte, but he can’t and doesn’t tell him where he saw Paul.

René tells his parents that he went swimming at a beach with water and sand that reminded him of Carmel.

July 4, 1943 – 75 years ago in a WW2 M.A.S.H. Unit

July 4, 1943
No. 45

Bizerte, Algeria
(His parents still think he is in Casablanca)

Dear Folksies,    

          Today being the 4th, I can remember “when” — when we were all much younger and everyone participated in the 4th of July games and contests on the lawn of the Feather River Inn — and then in the later years, the more sedate ping-pong tournaments at the Tahoe Tavern and the Bines watching the younger kids with their games. No, we never really became more sedate, but they just wouldn’t let us in the kid’s games anymore.

          I can just picture you today at the Tavern. As it is a weekend, and, despite tire-rationing, the San Francisco crowd has probably taken time off, the golf course is undoubtedly crowded so that this must be your day off from the course. I also have before me a picture of Mom and Dad comfortably reclining on their beds, reading. I sort of hope that what I see in their hands are letters from me, or perhaps from Lois. I’ve been wondering if there are going to be any auto races up there this year, but sort of imagine that the race fans would rather be using gas for things other than racing. Gee, I didn’t know that I could lapse so, and become that reminiscent, but at that it does feel sort of good.

          We have been doing considerable resting, reading and sleeping the last few days. Have greatly enjoyed the book you sent me for Xmas, “This Is My Best”. It really is swell and helps to pass the time away most comfortably.

          Yesterday, a funny coinkidinky, as Marie-Louise would call it, occurred. I was reading Robert Benchley’s “Treasurer’s Report” in that book and when I finished I remarked to the fellow next to me that Benchley really was a screwball. He replied that he certainly was, and then we both suddenly discovered that we had been reading the exact same story in different books – he in one of those Pocket Editions. Strange, eh?

          Yesterday I went with one of the officers who had to visit a nearby town for some materials, and it turned into quite a sight-seeing tour. We got into one spot, however, that felt as if it were the jaws of hell, ‘twas so hot. There was a slight breeze, but it was so hot that it nearly burned the shirts off our backs. It has been hot, here, but when we got back yesterday, we welcomed this heat.

                                                                                                                                                  Loads of love,



Watch for my next message on
July 5

(Click on the image above to enlarge enough to read)

In this article, published in the San Francisco Chronicle on July 4, 1943, Charlotte Bambino eloquently and honestly describes the many challenges she and the other nurses faced.

Charlotte Bambino

René reminisces about happier fourths of July –  when the family celebrated at Feather River or Lake Tahoe. Pictured here (left to right) are René Sr., Alma and Marie-Louise in 1935 at a lake near Feather River.