Immigrant Soldier: The American Journey of Albert J. Heim

Memories of Albert Heim (Part 6)

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First World War | Our first days in France

First World War

After 50 years I find it rather difficult to recall every city, village and hamlet I passed through or was billeted at in France during the war.  Also the memories of certain action on the line, over the line or to and from the line are thoughts that I would rather keep to myself, not only I but all my buddies shared these experiences together.  We did what we were ordered to do.  Each man knew his responsibility and carried himself like a good soldier until he was either called by his creator  or was spared to see victory.  Many true and brave buddies answered that call and these are the heroes that gave all.  In memory and out of respect for them it is better to keep these things in my heart for they are not here to share public or individual admiration of the way it was. - - - -
* * *
As I mentioned before while at the embarkation center in Newport, VA we were told to pack up all our equipment for instant departure and due to the fact that there was no other place to go to almost everyone in our outfit went to the movies.  They were showing a rather good picture and the comedy was exceptionally funny.  Just before the end of the picture all the lights were suddenly turned on and a M.P. informed us that all officers and men of our brigade are to report to their barracks.  We were so used to these kind of announcements that we did not make too much of them.  However upon arrival at our barracks things really began to happen. Within 30 minutes our commanding officer had us lined up with full packs on our back, belt and bayonet and side arms in their proper place and rifles at order arms.  This time our usually happy Skipper was indeed a very serious man as he read our orders:  All personnel under your command will board ship at 23.30 hours.  The order of march will be double file and absolute silence is to be kept from barracks to transport.  You will follow a guide assigned to your command.  Then he gave the order, at rest. – So, it finally came, no more rumors now – this was IT.
There was not too much talking to be heard, all we did is wait for that guide.  He appeared sooner than we expected, saluted our captain and then the top sergeant howled, ATTENTION, FOREWARD MARCH and down the hill and through a few quiet side streets and onto a long pier we went.  It was the queerest and most lonesome night march I can remember.  The order was silence but no one felt like talking anyhow and I know that every one was thinking plenty, because when we called out our name and rank and serial number before walking across the gangway of our transport and the officer checked us out, that was our last roll call in the good old U.S.A.
As we arrived on the deck of the ship, sailors guided us to our quarters.  Our quarters, they sure did not look like our barracks on the hill.  There were rows and rows of bunks, three high, on top of one another and the area was nothing but a regular hold on a freighter.  Our quarters were located in the bow of the ship.  There were port holes, but they were all covered and could not be opened.  The only entrance and exit was a large and wide stairway in the center of the area.  So this was to be our floating home for two weeks and for the majority of the fellows, this was their first voyage across the Atlantic.  When I looked at the bunks, I thought of my first trip across the ocean.  I remembered, that it can get pretty rough at times, and what this can do to a man.  So, good thinking old boy, I at once picked out the top bunk for myself.  In fact some of my buddies were rather pleased, for they figured the lower bunks were easier to get into.  Of course the poor devils did not know and here I found out that experience really counts and helps you make the right decision.  Before long a sailor appeared on top of the stairway and sounded a boatswain’s whistle.  At once everything quieted down and all ears were at attention.  The sailor, who probably was a petty officer then gave us instructions on how we were to act while on board the ship.  Each man received a Maywest (life jacket) and these and a canteen of fresh water were to be warn at all times.  We even had to sleep in our life jackets.  We could only smoke during the day and we were informed how serious it could be if we were to smoke at night especially on deck.  We were also assigned to our life rafts which were stacked up on top side.  The time schedule when to line up for mess was also announced.  It certainly was not a very pleasant schedule and I heard many of my buddies say, why did we ever kick and cry about our camp in Alabama. - - - No one slept that night.  We just sat around and talked and we were not even allowed to go on deck.  At six bells however we lined up for  mess and it took about one hour before we got our chow.  Of course there were no tables to sit at, so everybody found a place on deck and did the best they could.  Cleaning our mess gear was really quite a ceremony.  Three sailors were stationed at this particular spot who made certain that our mess kits were absolutely clean and indeed they sure did their job well.  As usual, there were quite a few who did not care for all this bossy procedure but soon they realized that it was for our own health that this was done.  After mess we were allowed to go where ever we wanted to.  It was a beautiful sunny day in June and we sat on deck and watched and saw the dock crew still loading our equipment.  Finally at 11 hours two tugs came along side, the gangway came up and the thick hawsers that held our ship secure to the pier were removed, a couple of loud shrieks from the ship’s whistle and slowly we began moving away from the pier.  It sort of got me, because there were very few people on the docks waving God speed to us.  To me it looked as though we were just sneaking away. - - - Before long, the tug boats left us and a little later the shores of our America disappeared and then there was nothing but water and sky.  The ocean was very calm and it was a beautiful sail.  Again we lined up for chow and while we were eating on deck it really was very warm and some of the fellows in order to be more comfortable, removed their life jackets.  However, not for too long, for a very stern voice from the upper structure of the ship bellowed across the deck, Put those life jackets on or we put them on for you in the brig.  For the last time, life jackets are to be worn at all times, I repeat, all times.  This is an order from the captain of the ship.  - - - Wow, wow, that wasn’t fooling and how remarkable, they never had to warn us about those life jackets again.
It must have been about 13 hours, when over the horizon on our port side we saw several Navy destroyers and more transport ships like ours and a little later we saw a large battleship and two destroyers and the latter always stayed a certain distance in front of the rest of the ships.  As the afternoon passed, the transports came somewhat closer to one another but the destroyers always kept a position on the outside of all the troop ships.  This was a rather welcome sight for us.  I’m sure none of us ever saw so many ships all in one area and it gave us a more secure feeling with all these neighbors along side.  It was very interesting to watch the Navy operate.  Signal flags of all sorts went up the masts and we saw sailors sending their semaphore signals from one bridge to another.  We tried very hard to read some of their messages because some of us also knew the semaphore code.  However, these Navy boys were indeed too fast for us and when ever we did get a sentence or two, it all did not make any sense at all.  No doubt the messages were all in code.
We witnessed a beautiful sunset and as the sun finally disappeared in the west, it became dark and we were informed, that this particular time of the day was called the Twilight period.  Practically every man on board had to line up near the rails and look straight ahead across the ocean.  We were standing four rows deep and we had to report any object we might see.  Navy personnel  was stationed in the back of us who would take our reports and would check same with their powerful binoculars.  All the guns on top side were also manned by sailors ready for any emergency.  These precautions were taken because the German U-boats usually picked out this particular time of the day to attack ships crossing the ocean.  This procedure was followed every day, even during the twilight in the morning.  To me, it was always a very scary time and quite often, as I looked across the water I thought I saw a periscope or something in the sea.  Due to the long mess line, we always had to eat our supper on deck in the dark and it was really amazing, not once did any one ever light a cigarette on top side while it was dark.  Of course we all knew, just one little light may mean disaster for all of us.  Again, no one really got a good night’s rest.  It was all so strange and already some of the fellows had that unusual feeling, though the ocean was not rough but the swells of the water on the ocean’s surface were getting larger and larger.  For those who experienced this for the first time it was a very uncomfortable feeling.  I suppose I was one of the fortunate ones, because it did not affect me at all, in fact I enjoyed this ocean voyage, because it was all for free. - - - Early in the morning, that so and so sailor blew that weird boatswain’s whistle again and this was the Navy’s reveille.  What was unusual, after the sailor blew his whistle, he would announce, all hands on top side watch in 30 minutes.  And this is how every day started on board of this transport.  During mid morning we had to line up for calisthenics.  In fact this was the only exercise we got, except those, who were on KP detail, that is, kitchen police or in plain English, potato peelers, utensil washers, or just plain kitchen canaries and mopper-uppers.  The day seemed to go slow and the fellows would while away their time playing cards and of course that famous army sport, the “crap game,” was in evidence in the most unusual places on the ship.  Quite often during the afternoon we had boxing matches and there were always a certain group of boys who did a very fine job in entertaining us with their own funny and clever sketches or lead us in singing of our army songs.
On the third day at sea we were really surprised, when we assembled for mess, to see twice as many ships and another large battleship following us.  We found out before long, that this was the 58th brigade, which sailed from Hoboken, N.J.  and joined us.  So now, the entire division was together again.  And it certainly was an impressive sight.
So, the days rolled slowly by, many of the boys got seasick, although the ocean was not rough at all.  And many of my buddies found out why I picked the top bunk, for it is not very pleasant when your buddy, whose bunk is above you gets seasick and has not the time to make a certain G. I. can, that is placed here and there for the use of sick and miserable dough boys.  I asked one of my buddies whether he could use  an umbrella or a canvas curtain and he asked me if I would exchange bunks with him for $3.00, and if not, how would I like to go to - - - - (Just a nice buddy)
Our first Sunday on board and church services were held for all denominations.  Our chaplain asked for mass servers and another fellow and myself had this honor.  We had indeed beautiful weather and the nights were cool and many of us would sit on deck and just inhale that clean and fresh salt water air.  We also watched the half moon that was shining.  But something puzzled us, because the moon would first shine on the starboard side and then gradually it would shine on the port side.  Of course being greenhorns on sailors territory we asked one of the Navy boys, how come, the moon was acting in such a manner ? Naturally, as was expected, he made us feel like a bunch of dum dums, reminding us that the ship was taking a zig-zag course, in order to confuse the submarines and that was the reason why we saw the moon in different positions.  Boy oh boy, ain't that Navy smart ? ? ?
By now we were getting pretty well used to our routine and every now and then we would get a thrill, watching schools of whales in the distance.  Of course the porpoise we would see darting in and out of the water along side the ship very often.
I mentioned thrills before, and I can truthfully state that we experienced a thrill that every mother’s son in our convoy will never forget and it lasted for the 20 longest minutes I shall remember.
Just before our evening twilight watch about the 10th day at sea, while we were waiting for the boatswain to blow his whistle for assembly, all of a sudden all hell broke loose.  Now if this would have happened on land, I am sure I would not have been half as concerned but on the high sea, I admit I was just petrified.  Our ship’s whistle let go six loud blasts.  Sailors were coming from all directions, manning and removing the gun covers.  The destroyers were darting in and out between the transports and I could see the flames from the guns of the battleship behind us and then a loud voice from the bridge bellowed out:  Lay flat on deck, stay where you are until further orders.  - - -  Then the guns on our ship started to blast away and from the concussion of these guns, every thing that was not tied down just flew up into the air and we could feel the ship tremble when ever a shot was fired.  The powder magazine was open on the deck and sailors were passing shell after shell to the gunners.  I flabbed on deck right near the life rafts and this gave me a good view of the action around us.  It seemed as though the destroyers were concentrating on a particular area quite a distance on the port side of our convoy.  I saw large geysers of water gushing up in the air and although we were quite a distance from it we could feel the vibration of the explosion on our ship.  No doubt the two destroyers that were engaged in this action were firing depth charges.  What also made things more frightening for us, was the ship’s engines were stopped.  Every thing was so uncanny and silent, except the sound of the guns.  As I mentioned before, I was indeed petrified and I could not concentrate at all.  I was just laying on the deck, waiting for further orders.  All this furious commotion lasted about 20 minutes but to me it was just one terrible nightmare. 
Finally we heard two long blasts from one of the ships in the convoy and the command from the bridge came, to resume normal activities, and line up for twilight watch. There were an awful lot of very sober dough boys standing this watch and I honestly believe that if at this time a match were floating on the surface of the sea, 90 percent of the boys would have reported it as a U-boat periscope.  We tried very hard to find out, whether we really were attacked by a German submarine or was it just a scare or a drill.  But never did we really find out what all the commotion was about.  There is one thing which I always will admit however, these Navy boys deserved a lot of praise and respect, for when one sees what I have seen in these 20 minutes, any one must agree, they certainly are on the job when the time arrives.
We were also informed that we were approaching the danger zone  and we noted that the destroyers used different tactics in their movements around us.  We were also entering the Bay of Biscay and if nothing unforeseen happens we would land at Brest the following day.  In one way this was good news but many of us started thinking, we crossed the Atlantic and we made it, but we all wondered, will we be able to cross the span of time that lies ahead of us safely.  At about 8 o’clock the next morning we saw steep cliffs ahead of us.  Of course it was just the rugged coast of France and before long we passed through the narrow passage that leads us to the harbor of Brest.  It was a very picturesque sight this water passage winding its way through high cliffs of the French coast and suddenly like a large lake the harbor of Brest appeared.  Before we reached this inland waterway we saw many French fishermen in their small boats manipulating their fish nets.  We also noticed the peculiar frocks they were wearing and of course the black beret was also in evidence.  We also saw many fortifications on the steep sides of the cliffs.  The French Navy was very much in evidence long before we entered French territorial waters and the red tassels on top of the French sailor’s hats were indeed very austere and we thought they looked rather silly.  Of course this was the first time we ever saw the French sailors and no doubt before long we will see an awful lot of strange sights.  It was really a very impressive sight, to see all the transports line up in single file to pass through the narrow water way.  It looked like a bunch of ducks following their mother.  I only saw one of the destroyers entering the harbor and I believe the rest of the Navy vessels stayed out in the bay.  Some time in the afternoon we all lined up, fully packed and once again we called out our name and rank and serial number and after crossing the ship’s gangway, this was our first roll call in France.

Our first days in France

Brest was not a very impressive place.  We marched across the cobblestone water front and through narrow streets that wound their way up an agonizing and long hill.  Of course each man was fully packed and with rifle, that was over 45 pounds of extra weight.  The two weeks of leisure life on our luxury liner sort of made us a bunch of softies.  The salty drops of perspiration were really rolling down every one’s chin.  There was one thing  however we did enjoy and appreciate, all the way through the streets of Brest, the French people were lined up on both sides of the street giving us rousing welcome, shouting, Alo Yankee – Vive le Amerique  and the children really hung on to us yelling, Chew Gum, yes? Chocolat, Yes? and now and then some one would hold up a bottle of wine.  Five francs for you, Yes? They would shout and quite a number of the boys would hand over a dollar bill, because we had no French money, just for a bottle of lousy red wine, which of course they found out later.  After an hour march we finally arrived at old Napoleon French prison, which was converted into a quarantine center for incoming troops.  Of course we knew that conditions in the old country would be some what different than in the United States, but when we saw our new quarters, we never expected the difference to be that great.  We came to a tunnel like entrance then we had to climb down 30 steps, which brought us to a large dungeon-like hall.  The few windows were little square holes way up toward the ceiling.  All around the walls were table-like bunks built out of wood and very much worn and cut up with all sorts of initials.  These bunks were about three feet off the stone floor and about the same length as an ordinary army cot.  They were also elevated some, so the head would be slightly higher than the feet.  At one corner of the musty establishment were several bales of straw and we were told to fill our bedsacks with this straw, which of course would make us so comfortable, and it would be better than sleeping on the bare boards of this Napoleonic bedroom furniture.  Boy oh boy, how nice and considerate can they get?  The boys were rather slow in filling up their bedsacks with the straw.  When the army gave us these things we thought we would never have to use them but I guess we were wrong, so stuff the darn bedsacks we did.  One of the fellows really summed it all up very nicely, the way we felt on this our first night in La belle Francais, when he remarked, fellows, I do not know about you guys, but I feel like a prisoner on Devil’s Island.  Just then our platoon leader came to see us and he was  quite a character and he was also well liked by the men.  Well men, he said, all of you no doubt heard that expression, War is hell?  Now this here place is only a very very small taste of it, so we might as well do the best we can and fellows, I have an idea that there’ll be times ahead when we wished we were here again, and he was soooo right. - - -
Believe it or not we slept pretty good that night and we even enjoyed that beautiful sound of mess call in the morning.  We were also surprised, there was no formal reveille and roll call in the morning.  However our sergeant and corporals made certain that all men were accounted for.  The food was not too bad, in fact it was better than on the transport.  We kept busy during the day, washing our filthy clothes.  We did not do very much washing on board ship, because very few of us had salt water soap.  If you ever tried to wash clothes in salt water with ordinary soap, I’m sure you will understand the difficulty we were up against.  We also had real American made showers. Of course there was no warm water but at least we could rinse the soap off our carcasses.  Also during the day we had several lectures in regards to railroad transportation in France, the reason why we had to wear our gas masks continually and the talks and slides on venereal disease were especially impressed upon us.  On the third day of our stay here came that joyous occasion in any man’s army, payday. – This time we received our pay in French currency and the boys were really amused, what a big pile of French money they got for a miserly thirty bucks.  At this particular time the dollar was worth18 francs.  The majority of the men received $33.00 a month, so 590 francs or more in paper money made quite a roll.  What really got the gang was, some of the French paper money looked exactly like our cigar coupons in America.  Also some of the coins were rather odd, they had a hole right in the center.  Getting this large amount of paper  money made us feel as though we were quite wealthy, however we soon found out that the French money disappeared just as fast as our own money, especially after the two war bonds our war risk insurance were taken out of our pay.  The following day it was announced, that we would be able to visit some of the neighboring villages on an eight-hour pass.  This was indeed unexpected and good news.  Many army trucks took the men to the different villages and we were told to assemble here at 16 hours for our return trip to our quarters.  It was really quite a day.  So many of the fellows naturally made their first stop at a wine establishment and before no time at all a large number of them were just completely out of this world, stone drunk.  Others tried to make much friends with some of the French girls but for some reason did not make much headway.  It was really comical to see the boys with their little French and English trying to hold a conversation and oh how outrageously they used the French language.
As for myself, I stayed with my three buddies and we too visited a wine shop.  Between the four of us we ordered a bottle of white wine and it tasted just terrible and we did not even finish the stuff.  We decided that drinking was not for us so we thought we might look around and see what the village looked like.  This was accomplished in 15 minutes, for it was only a small town.  But yet there was a large and very old church surrounded by the cemetery at the edge of the village.  At about noon we were getting rather hungry, but there were no hotels or restaurants in the town.  While passing one of the houses we noticed a couple of ladies talking to each other and an idea hit me.  I still remembered some of my French and I approached the ladies and in the best French I could muster I asked them if they could tell us where we could get something to eat and of course we would pay for it.  My buddies really got the shock of their life, because they never dreamed that I was able to hold a conversation in French.  And of all things this was our lucky day, for one of the ladies told us, that if we were willing to wait for about an hour they would fix up something for us because they were so glad the Americans were here to help their country.  We never expected this and we were all delighted and told the ladies that we had until four o’clock and it would please us very much, if the whole family would eat with us.  That was good diplomacy for the lady was very pleased and she invited us in the house to meet her family.  We really had a wonderful time, especially with the children.  They sure had many a laugh listening to our French and we made them say some words in English.  We had one delicious meal indeed.  It has been a long time since we had good home cooked meal.  It was not an elaborate and grandiose dinner, but it was good.  The afternoon of course passed very quickly for us and we all agree that we had a much better time than some of the other fellows.  We gave the lady 40 francs and she almost passed out, Oh, La La, she said, it is too much.  But I informed her that just to be able to eat with a family was worth more than what I gave her.  She gave us all a big kiss and her husband wished us a safe return to our home land.  So, off we went to find out how the rest of American Army was doing.  My oh my, what a mess.  Arriving at our assembly place, all those that were able had to load the flushed faced and stupefied casualties into the trucks.  They did not care whether a war was going on or not and it really was a relief when we finally arrived at our quarters. 
I shall always be thankful for meeting my three buddies, for we were always together, had the same taste and of course had very much in common.  For the next few days nothing unusual happened. However, on the third day, we got the orders to pack and after a two-mile hike we arrived at a railroad center.  There were several long trains all lined up waiting for us.  First we thought they were freight trains, but we soon found out that they were not.  On the side of each boxcar were clearly marked those World War I well known numbers, 40 X 8 which in plain ordinary American means, 40 men or 8 horses.  We have heard about the famous French troop trains so now it is our turn to get acquainted with this kind of transportation.  No one really knew where we were going, perhaps the officers did but 40 of us were told to board one of the boxcars and that was all there was to it.  Of course they were very kind to us, the cars were covered with straw which of course made smoking a little risky and to top it off the wheels of the car must have been square instead of round and it is a wonder we did not lose all our innards and our mind for that matter because day and night it was the same ca - plunk - ca – plunk.  Third class travel in Europe is about the cheapest way to go but this could not even be considered as sixth class and now we know how 8 horses felt traveling in this manner.  We rode on this train for three days and we saw much of the French country side through the sliding doors of our boxcar.  We also stopped at many of the large railroad centers in France.  About every six hours we would leave the car for mess and just being able to walk again was quite a relief.  I shall never forget at one of the big railroad centers we where we stopped.  There were a number of wooden tank cars lined up right along side our train.  We could never figure out where the information came from but some how some body knew that there was wine in these here wooden tank cars.  Well that was just too bad for who ever owned this shipment for in no time at all a conspicuous red fluid was seen gushing out of one of the tank cars and a considerable and eager line of doughboys were busy filling their canteens of probably the best wine in France.  As it always happens, all the boys were not able to fill their canteens, because the train whistle blew and everyone had to scram on board the train.  I must state however, there must have been some gentlemen in the gang because some good soul blocked up that little hole in the tank car.  Waste not – want not, surely that must have been their slogan.  It was also very peculiar, with all the officers around not one of them had the slightest idea of anything going on that might have been a little out of order.  Very interesting - - I bet they too had their chance of quenching their thirst after we left this station.  Finally, early the third day we arrived at Belfort, in Alsace-Lorraine.  So we traveled all the way across France from Brest on the Atlantic to Alsace Lorraine near the Swiss border.  After a short rest and some food we lined up in full pack and then began the march through the city of Belfort.  It was quite a large city and about five kilometers out of the city we were billeted in an old barn.  The first thing we noticed was the out of this world aroma of COWS in the stable next to our barn.  - - - - 


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