July 7, 1943 – 75 years ago in a WW2 M.A.S.H. Unit

René’s journal entry for July 7, 1943…

            On the 7th, as we were completely loaded we had orders to go to the outer harbor and anchor, so I went up early to the 56th and found that three of our boys could come back to the ship, so I brought them back with me.

          By that time, our load was quite a sight. We had two half-tracks with mounted 50mms on them — one on each side of the deck up by the elevator. They had both fired considerably during the air raid and one shell had landed on the hood of one of them, going through a bed roll that was there, and just tearing it to bits. That was where the soldier got his shrapnel, as he was on the half-track gun at the time.

          We had our “flight-deck” with two Pipers on the top and one on each side on the main deck. These were covered with camouflage from some of the trucks below. The camouflage had been the joint idea of Captain Ruud and myself and had been seized upon rapidly by all concerned. They even took my own idea of putting the two planes that were on top with their propellers facing each other instead of with tail to nose as they had been.

            Below the “flight-deck,” between the planes and the half-tracks, were 30 Arab donkeys. What a sight!! There was plenty of hay for them on the deck also, and strangely enough, they seemed to enjoy the trip very much, not getting near as sick as did many of the soldiers and even sailors.

            As equipment below, we had a various assortment – trucks, half-tracks, tanks, amphibious 6 X 6s, jeeps, etc. etc. Just before we pushed off from the dock, who do I bump smack into but Col. Westmoreland. I was glad to see him, and vice-versa, and I was only sorry that he was not traveling on our ship.

            We anchored out in the outer harbor on the 7th and then the whole tremendous convoy shoved off at about 5 A.M. on the 8th. The trip the first day wasn’t bad, not too rough at all and I managed okay. That day we sighted, behind us, the whole gang from Tunis – they were too far behind for me to be able to pick out any of the numbers of the ships, but we knew they were the rest of the gang. Eddie’s ship was right beside ours for the whole trip to Sicily.



Watch for my next message on
July 10

As René writes in his journal, Below the ‘flight-deck,’ between the planes and the half-tracks, were 30 Arab donkeys. What a sight!! There was plenty of hay for them on the deck also, and strangely enough, they seemed to enjoy the trip very much, not getting near as sick as did many of the soldiers and even sailors.”

July 10, 1943 – 75 years ago in a WW2 M.A.S.H. Unit

René’s journal entry for July 10, 1943…

           On the night of the July 8th and all during the day and night of the 9th, the weather was fierce — the water was rough and there was a 40- to 60-mile-an-hour gale blowing the whole time. I decided to spend most of my time on my bunk, as the outside was rather crowded, and though it was rather hot indoors, the recumbent position was far less conducive to getting rid of one’s meals. Ate O.K., however, and never really was nauseated, but just didn’t feel right. Stayed on the bed and read all day.

            We sailed quite a ways out of our way, going clear to Malta, apparently to confuse the enemy. On the night of the 9th we had constant “general quarters.” Then, in the early morning, just what time I never noted, things began popping. We were some ways off shore and bombs started falling around us and there was plenty of firing from the shore batteries. But the cruiser and destroyers with us did all the returning of the firing, and some of the other ships did also, but we didn’t fire a shot, not having the opportunity.

            Apparently at some point, one or two of our own planes were shot down, but just how true that story was — they were supposed to have been shot down by our own fire — no one has ever found out. Anyway, just before dawn, our #1 Piper took off, and as we were not heading absolutely directly into the wind, he had a little trouble and went out over the side some 20 yards before he came to the end of the runway. However, he stayed up and circled around successfully. He was at first shot at by one of our ships who mistook him for the enemy, but he wasn’t hit. Then, immediately afterwards, the second plane took off, this time most successfully.

            Following that, we headed into the beach and set loose the pontoons. We were the first large ship into the shore and the first to have their pontoons launched. The weather had, suddenly around midnight, changed favorably – and there wasn’t much wind and the sea was relatively calm, so the small boats had no trouble getting in. Apparently there were no mines on the beaches at all and the only trouble came from shore batteries and snipers. We found that there had been four deaths caused by snipers.

          The cruiser and destroyer were pounding shells into the town. Every once in a while we would see shells coming out from the town and then pretty quick a burst from the cruiser (Brooklyn), and then no more bursts from that particular part of the city.

          It took quite a little while to unload the ship as one of the half-tracks got stuck and couldn’t get traction on the pontoon for some reason or other. But soon everything went rather smoothly.

            Our donkeys had quite a time getting off, as they tended to fall in the spaces between the various sections of the pontoons. They went off the sides into the water on several occasions, but that didn’t seem to phase them and they kept on swimming into shore. The end of the pontoons were in a couple of feet of water, so all the jeeps, etc. that went off got a nice soaking, and so did the men.

           Over on our left we saw a tank and a caterpillar that were sunk — apparently they had come off an LCT while it was still too far out in the water. Just the tops of the vehicles were seen. The men coming off the LCTs were having trouble getting ashore, and two almost drowned as we watched, for the ship could not get in quite close enough and had to let the men off in six feet of water — with packs and all that was pretty difficult. So they started unloading onto the causeways after a while, and it was certainly a heck of a lot easier and less dangerous for the men.

            After we had unloaded the equipment and donkeys and water, we pulled out and let one of the other ships take the causeway. After we had pulled out a little ways, Mr. Mockbee and I were standing on the bridge and we saw a plane come down over the mountain. We both thought it was a P40 at first, and then just as we both recognized the black cross and let out a yell of enemy plane, that plane let go with three bombs right where we had been but a few minutes before — missing an LCT and LCI that were close together. There were several other planes around also, but they vamoosed over the hill when the destroyer let go with all her guns.

            While we were still hitched up to the causeway, Capt Ruud and I had gone to the edge of the causeway, but as there was no reason to go ashore, we decided not to get soaking wet. But just then a wave came up and over the causeway and we found we had spoken too soon — for we were both drenched.

            Mr. White, who had been aboard for several days, an A.P. photographer from Washington D.C., had gone ashore when we first landed and got plenty of good pictures and then returned to the ship before we pulled out. He took several pictures on the ship, getting one of all the officers and some of the men. He also got pictures of our donkeys and of our planes. He was quite an interesting and darn nice fellow, and we only hoped that he would get back to Algiers in time to get his pictures to Washington before any other photographer made it.

            After pulling out from the beach, we launched our other two planes and they took off beautifully and with no trouble. We sat around out in the water for a few hours, and then finally a convoy was formed and we started back to Bizerte.


Watch for my next letter on
July 12

Photographs from the Invasion of Sicily – July 10, 1943

View from René’s ship as it approached the shore.

René described how the pontoons were deployed: “These pontoons were carried over lashed to the sides of the ship – then were dropped overboard some time before reaching the beach – ‘sea-bees’ manned them. The ship went full steam ahead, hitting the sand of the beach and the pontoons keep going to land. They are anchored to shore and then pulled into position so one end is at the mouth of the LST.”


On July 10, Dr. Philip Westdahl, still in Casablanca, wrote in his journal, “SICILY INVADED! We hope it’s the beginning and most of all that we will finally be in it. A letter from the gang up north would indicate that they may be part of a hospital ship in the original invasion. Who knows, maybe they are at work this very day.” 

July 15, 1943 – 75 years ago in a WW2 M.A.S.H. Unit

René’s journal entry for July 15, 1943…

           We got back finally late on the night of the 11th, the commander of the convoy having wandered around and taken longer than he should have — and we had to anchor out in the outer harbor, going in early on the morning of my birthday. The Capt. had sent in the amazing report of: wounded–none; killed–none; amount of damage to ship–none; amount of ammunition expended–none. He was pretty proud of that — it really was something.

            Later that day (the 12th) I went to the hospital with Mr. Mockbee and found he had a chip fracture of the head of the humerus – Capt. Galt, the orthopod, told me what to do with him, but Mr. Mockbee refused to wear a sling for more than 5 minutes, and somehow he has been lucky and his arm hasn’t hurt him much at all, despite all the climbing up and down on the ship.

            That afternoon we got a shock — we found that we were to have a still stranger cargo on the next trip — Moroccan troops complete with horses, mules, fleas, lice, etc. You should have seen the mob of them. I think one other ship got some of them, but we got the large majority and all the animals. It was quite a sight to see them trooping aboard. That dock was full of spectators watching the quaint sight. They had piled a tremendous amount of sand and hay aboard so that the animals could eat and wouldn’t wreck their feet on the hard tank deck and when they were crowded in it was something that can not be easily imagined. And the smell is hard to imagine also.

            Our cargo of Moroccan soldiers came from Marrakech, it turned out, and they had some very nice French Officers in command. They all had lived in Africa most of their lives, all except the one who was official interpreter and liaison between the French and Americans. One of the officers was a young doctor who had his training at Lyon. I got along fairly well talking to them.

            Some of the things were most interesting. Supposedly these troops are really red-hot fighters and do not take prisoners, as the story goes that they get paid by the number of enemy ears or big toes they bring back. Nice, eh!

            We had lots of trouble at first, as the men didn’t know what a toilet was for. And though they might go to the latrine, they used the floor instead of the bowl. Finally we got them somewhat educated, and actually, when they left, the troop-compartments were a lot cleaner than after the soldiers we had on the first trip.

            The odor that come up from the ventilators from below was terrific. I prayed all the way over that they wouldn’t have the temerity to wish poor patients on us for the return trip, as the whole ship needed fumigating.

            When we got to within sight of Licata, the Moroccans let out the weirdest hollering you ever would want to hear. They had been doing a lot of singing on the way over, particularly at night when there were nothing but blue lights on on the tank deck, but this was different.

            This time we landed, first again, at the dock of Licata. When the medical officer in charge of evacuation of patients came around and took one look at our tank deck, he hesitated no longer and said we would get no patients. As it was, there were only about 50 to go, so he loaded them on two other ships. Some of the ships also took prisoners back, but we again returned empty.

            We sat around in the water for a few hours, gave some of our water supply (which we had planned leaving at the dock – but they had no containers for it – 60,000 gal.) to a small British ship. We invited the British Officers aboard while the water was being pumped into their ship, and they were very nice and very interesting. We gave them several loaves of bread, for which they were most appreciative, as they had been living on “dog-biscuits” all the time. They asked me aboard to see one of their men who was spitting up blood at the moment. It turned out that he had a red-hot tonsillitis with some erosion of the superficial vessel. Their Pharmacist-mate was a very intelligent fellow, and all I could do was advise a larger dose of sulfa than he was giving, as he was giving a small dose.

            Finally around 11 P.M. the night of the 14th we left and headed home to Bizerte, thankful that we didn’t have to stay all night there, as they had told us that they had nightly bombing.


Watch for my next letter on
July 16

French troops in Bizerte getting ready to board the ship on the way to Licata, Sicily

View of Licata, Sicily from René’s ship.

Moroccan soldiers unloading their horses in Sicily.

In Licata, Sicily

July 20, 1943 – 75 years ago in a WW2 M.A.S.H. Unit

René’s journal entry for July 20, 1943…

         Got back after midnight July 16, and stayed in the outer harbor until morn, coming in around 8 A.M.

            Again we loaded up after the many hours it took to clean out our tank deck – what a time they had shoveling out the sand and the hay. I had anticipated that the boys and I would not have to make another trip, particularly as there were actually so few of the ships bringing back patients. However, I was unable to get any info on it and so after loading that night, we pulled out around noon the next day, the 18th. This time we had a rather normal load – had some of the rear echelon bunch of the Rangers, some more of the 15th, the 10th and the 20th, and a couple of other odd outfits. Had nothing but big trucks, a few half-tracks and trailers.

            Had another uneventful trip, but somehow the commander of the convoy went awful slowly and we didn’t get in until around 3:30 P.M. When we got in this time there were several ships still in the harbor and there were oodles of ships, all kinds, out off the beach about a half mile. I was surprised to see that several of the LST’s that were in had diamonds on their sides and when I began searching carefully with my binoculars, I was able to pick out Bret’s, Ham’s, Pete’s, Russ’s and Ralphs’ ships. I was able to pick out Bret on the bridge of his ship and also saw Pete on his.

            Finally, when it was dark, we were told to come into the harbor and this time we really unloaded in a hurry. ‘Twas just under two hours. As it was too dark to venture forth, we just had to stay on the docks and weren’t able to go up into the town at all.

            I was told by the Major who was Port Commander that the reason the diamond ships had been in Licata was that he had sent for them to come back up from their port at Gela to take a whole flock of prisoners back, as he didn’t know whether we would be in again that day or the next and their stockade was getting awfully full. On the few ships that came in just before we were allowed in, he had loaded 3000 prisoners.

            The Major also told me about the taking of Porto Embadoquo. He said that after it was taken, it was thought that it had been well cleaned out, and as a consequence Major Miles and some Navy Captain went in to inspect the place. As they entered through a small pass, snipers opened up on them with a machine-gun, killing Major Miles and wounding the Captain. Some Lt. who was in the rear, went in with a jeep and brought both of them back, under fire of the snipers, but by then the Major was already dead. The captain was going to recover, they thought.

            We got out of the harbor in a hurry when we got a message that a torpedo-bomber was expected that night. We finally left around 2 A.M., having another uneventful return, getting back early in the A.M. on the 20th.

            During the whole third trip, the Captain had had difficulty with his digestion – having burning in his stomach, a hungry feeling, some nausea and then an episode of cramps and diarrhea. I gave him phenol and atropine and bisodol, but didn’t seem to help much. Diagnosis: Gastric Neurosis. He was pretty well tired out, not used to such a strenuous ten days with so little sleep, and with his disposition it was pretty bad dealing with him – his poor officers had a hell of a time.


Watch for my next communication on
July 21

While René is making his third round-trip between Bizerte and Sicily, most of the 59th is still in Casablanca.

On July 18, Dr. Philip Westdahl reflects in his journal: “As I sit here on this balmy evening overlooking the blue ocean and the white low buildings in the foreground, I can readily understand how this city was named Casablanca, ‘White House.’ Our stay here, though prolonged and rather uneventful, has been rather enjoyable. At this time of day, with the blue sky and water and a cool breeze blowing in from the ocean, it is truly a beautiful country. Our experience has been one that will live with me the rest of my days.”

On July 20, Dr. Westdahl records in his journal, “7AM – The last of the 59ths pulls out of Casablanca at the crack of dawn. The old hospital area is as smooth and barren as that memorable Christmas Eve night when we first took it over. Our convoy consists of about 50 vehicles, mostly radar units we are moving to the front for the air corps. The officers are riding in amphibious jeeps and they are terrifically hot without tops and no cross ventilation. The water in our canteens gets so hot we can hardly touch it to our lips. We made the mistake of taking hard chocolate which very promptly liquefied.”

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

René’s journal entry for July 21, 1943…

         Coming into the harbor at Bizerte on the A.M. of the 20th, with the Captain running the ship, we scraped our propellers somewhere on the side of the channel, thus taking a chunk out of one of the propeller blades. Then the Captain turned the ship over to Mr. Mockbee to bring into dock – realizing that he himself was in no condition to do so.

             After lunch, I took the Captain up to the 56th to see what could be done about him. Told the situation to Lt. Col. Winans who immediately said that he thought te Captain ought to be in the hospital for a few days. The Capt. was agreeable, so we went back to the dock to make arrangements for him to get his toilet articles. Back up at the hospital, the Capt. was handed a pair of pajamas and a bathrobe, he turned to me like a little kid, and said, “I don’t think I have to get undressed, do you, when I’m only here for observation?” That almost floored me, but I said, “But, Captain, you have to go to bed to sleep tonight, don’t you?” He finally agreed, but the minute he stepped into the ward, he was just about ready to go back to the ship again. What a contradiction in his make-up! He had been talking in a hopeful tone before, on the way up to the hospital, really hoping that he would be sent back to the U.S. Then he is in the hospital for a few minutes and he wants to get out.

            Anyway, I left the Capt. to the mercy of Major Rippey and Col. Winans and headed back to the ship. However, as I started to leave the hospital, I caught sight of a general, and knowing that Col. Blesse of the 56th was the brother of General Blesse, Medial Head of Allied Forces here, I figured that the general I saw was Blesse. So, I went up to him and told him who I was, and that I’m from the 59th and was, I hoped in the next few days going to be taken off the LST and sent back to the 59th. I wondered if he could tell me where the 59th was or where it would be. He said that it should be leaving that day from Casa, for Algiers. And then, he surprised me by asking, “What, you’re still on an LST?” When I told him I was, he said that we were only supposed to have made one trip. I told him that we were all set up to make a 4th trip. He said he would see about it right that evening.

            So, I returned to the ship and found that we wouldn’t be going out for another trip for a couple of days anyway, because it would take that long to fix our propeller. That was O.K. with me as that third trip had been awful monotonous. That evening we went into the Lake with the ship and everyone enjoyed the evening and the next A.M., in the Captain’s absence.

       On the night of the 20th, who should come aboard but Mr. White (Herb White is his name). He was back from Algiers and in grand spirits. When we took so long to get back, or so we thought, he had visions of having others beat him with pictures, etc. to the States. He was especially fearful that the British might beat him and have pictures of the British landing on Sicily before the Americans. But, when we saw his face on his return, we knew he had had it in the bag. In fact, it was far better than he could have ever dreamed it would be. He had somehow managed to talk himself into transportation from Bizerte to Algiers the Monday morning when we returned. In fact, the Navy gave him a private plane all the way there, so when he got to Algiers there was no one ahead of him and he got eight pictures and a story off right away over the Radiogram. And then his other pictures went by plane that same day, back to the U.S.

            He said they all turned out good, and his 8 pictures and story were in the Tuesday, July 13th morning editions of all the papers in the U.S. And, in a few days he got a radiogram from A.P. congratulating him on such a scoop, for his pictures beat all others, not just by a little, but by four whole days. Apparently no others had been able to get plane transportation to Algiers and he had it all over them. He said that all the other pictures should have been in the Sunday editions of all the papers, i.e. Sunday the 18th. Herb was headed back to Sicily to get in on some more activity, and as we weren’t going just then, he left us to get on another ship.


Watch for my next communication on
July 23

LSTs – short for Landing Ship, Tank or tank landing ship. It is the naval designation for ships built during World War II to support amphibious operations by carrying tanks, vehicles, cargo, and landing troops directly onto shore with no docks or piers. Shown above “with mouths open” and below being loaded in Bizerte.

Photo above shows Herb White – the AP photographer René mentions in his journal entry.
Below is one of his photos – on the front page of the New York Times on July 13, 1943.

On July 21, Dr. Westdahl writes in his journal about the journey he and the rest of the 59th are taking, “Today we traveled as far as Guercif, a nondescript little green spot in the midst of barren dry desert. It is hot, dusty, windy – washed my shorts and socks after dinner and they were dry, but brown with dust in 15 minutes. Passed through Fez and Taza today. Both beautiful towns in the Atlas mountain valleys. The land in these valleys is extremely fertile and the broad wheat fields are beautiful. Here we saw the first tractors and large multiple bladed plows and threshers. However, occasional individual Arab women and children are seen cutting and threshing by hand. Some are even picking over the fields already cut by the tractors, just as did Ruth in the book of the old Testament of that name. As always, we are seeing Biblical scenes re-enacted.”

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

René’s journal entry for July 23, 1943…

       On July 21, I went in from the Lake after lunch and went up to the 56th. I talked with Col. Winans first and then with Major Rippey, who informed me that the Capt. had left about half-hour before – having talked himself out. They had fluroscoped him with Barium meal and found nothing, as expected. It was only then that I had an opportunity to tell them more about the Capt. his actions, etc. Col. Winans agreed with me that the Capt. would very likely return if sent out on another trip, i.e. return to the hospital. Major Rippey was a little doubtful. However, both definitely agreed with my diagnosis.

       On the 22nd, the Captain asked me to go to the 56th and invite Major Rippey and Miss Riggo (his nurse) to bring another one or two officers and some of the nurses for dinner on June 23. While I was at the 56th, I found out that the General was still there, so I went in to see him. He was surrounded by about 4 full Cols. And I don’t remember what else – but I went up and asked him what he had to report – whether we would be relieved or not. He said that his executive officer, some Col., had arranged to contact Admiral Connally to get us off the ships, as he wanted us to rejoin our outfits so that we could shove off from Algiers in no time, if needed. The General was flying that afternoon to Sicily.

       That afternoon I returned to the ship and loafed around in the shade – what little there was. That had been pay-day for the ship’s company, so I wasn’t surprised when, later that night, Fuqua handed me $350 to keep for him, to put in the QM Savings when we got back. The dice sure are good business partners for him.

        On the 23rd, still no word as to when we were to be relieved. However, saw the flagship and found out that Admiral Connally was back, so, from Lt. Grady, found out that the wheels were grinding and we should know by the next day. I wonder!



Watch for my next letter on
July 30

(Left to right) René with Q. Fuqua and Bernie Herrington

On July 23, Dr. Westdahl writes in his journal about the journey he and the rest of the 59th are taking, “The valleys and rolling foot-hills between Tlemcen and Oran are a sight for sore eyes – absolutely beautiful vast wheat fields and grape vineyards with rich dark soil. All along the line, even in remote little spots, the Arab and French children hail us with the V for victory sign. We have our first glimpse of the Blue Mediterranean at Oran; at this point it doesn’t compare with San Francisco Bay.”

August 5, 1943 – 75 years ago in a WW2 M.A.S.H. Unit

Between August 1 and August 15, René doesn’t write any letters to his parents.

Fortunately, we can follow the activities of the 59th Evac. Hospital through the entries in the journal kept by Philip Westdahl and photographs from René’s albums.
Below is Dr. Westdahl’s journal entry for August 5, 1943

Bizerte, Algeria  

            We start our Mediterranean cruise, although not under the circumstances that most Mediterranean cruises are advertised. We are aboard an LST leaving the inner harbor of Bizerte about 1:15 pm. Along the channel we see numerous partly submerged ships and some barely visible beneath the surface lying on their side.

            From this view we can see to much better vantage the destruction of the docks, warehouses and buildings of Bizerte, many of which are completely flattened and others remain as walls enclosing a hollow, rubble-containing shell where once a house stood.

            Progress in cleaning the city has been slow and is still proceeding. As we pass out through the breakwater and look back on the waterfront lined with palm trees, the white sandy beach and the deep blue water it is easy to believe the Bizerte was at one time a veritable paradise.

            We lay at anchor just outside the breakwater and wait for the remainder of the convoy; finally we are away – 12 LSTs, 2 LSIs (landing craft infantry) and 4 small escort ships resembling corvettes.

            We sail almost due east and by nightfall we pass the island of Zembra and the tip of the Cape Bon peninsula. Along the shore just after leaving Bizerte we could see many scuttled ships left by the Germans after their unsuccessful attempt to evacuate from Africa.

            I’m sure I speak for everyone when I say that we are happy to be leaving Africa after 7 months of living in that fly-ridden dusty country.


Watch for René’s next letter on
August 16

Preparing to leave Bizerte.