Note: This is the first half of several “circular” letters that Arthur wrote to family. I think the intention was that it would get mailed to my grandmother and then circulated among friends and family back home. Because of that, the circular letters retell some of the news that Arthur shared previously, but with a slightly different slant, along with plenty of new information. This first circular letter is in two parts. Arthur didn’t finish writing it until over a week after he began, so you’ll have to wait until the 27th to read the rest. Again, I have left in most of the spelling errors and other mistakes, including the incorrect date below.
Saturday afternoon in the office
January 19, 1945
Three weeks this coming Monday since I watched Washington National Airport disappear in the mists of a rainy morning and, if I am to expect to receive mail, I unquestionably must send some. So, with a typewriter handy for the first time, I shall get to work. It is a beautiful day, temperature about 40 and a cloudless sky, following a week and a half of rain, followed by snow and colder. In the central courtyard of this Command Building of the group occupied by OMGUS (Office of Military Government for Germany (U.S.)) a group of healthy looking POWs are energetically removing a large pile of dirt and building rubbish under the not too watchful eyes of their GI guards, gathered around a warming fire. The twelve buildings of the group were originally the home of the Luftwaffe. They escaped major damage in the bombing and have been returned to usable conditions for our purposes. But enough of any picture of my physical surroundings – that will come in a later letter. I’ll devote this chapter to bringing you up to date on my travels from the States.
After I had been given to believe that I would not be leaving until the middle of January and I had made plans to spend my Christmas holidays in Montclair and Winchester saying goodbye to the family, I was informed by ‘phone on the evening of December 21st that I would go out on the 29th, requiring a complete change of plans and a busy week accelerating my arrangements for closing up my affairs in Washington and packing. Actually, it was two days later, the 31st, which saw my departure. We were alerted for a 7:00 A.M. takeoff and were required to be at the Air Transport Command Terminal by 6:00 for briefing on what to do if forced down over water, going through customs and being checked in. It was raining dismally and visibility was too poor so we cooled our heels until 9:45 before the wheels of our B-54 cargo plane left the runway. It was a “Bucket seat” job, that is, the only seats were set longitudinally along the sides of the plane, – pipe frames with a canvas seat stretched between and backs of webbing to recline against. The rest of the large cargo space was clear. The only baggage in this space was a six foot cube of mail, so it left us plenty of space to lie on the floor on o.d. cotton quilts and at least go through the form of sleeping during that portion of the two nights we were aboard.
The passengers were thirteen, eleven OMGUS employees, a Navy CPO and an Army sergeant. Ten of the eleven were civilians, eight of them girls; seven of us bound for Berlin and four for Frankfurt, headquarters of USFET (U.S. Forces, European Theatre), where OMGUS has a branch office. The eleventh of our group was a medical lieutenant – the only one to become – er – actively indisposed during the trip, for which he came in for considerably ribbing. We were a heterogeneous assortment, but, with one exception, mixed well, a fortunate thing, for most of us were pretty closely bound together by circumstance for the next nine days.
The four hour trip to Bermuda was pleasant, except for a period of about ten minutes when the big plane was kicked around brutally while a storm raged around us, and we landed without further incident at 2:45 P.M. (Bermuda time). We were fed and billeted at the field and, after going through the various necessary routine, we took the bus, – an Army two and a half ton truck, for the 14 mile ride into Hamilton, over roads which were never designed for Army trucks. We saw a bit of the city, then settled ourselves in the patio of the New Windsor Hotel for dinner and the beginning of our New Year’s Eve celebration. Our group, composed as it was, largely of American girls, proved considerable attraction for the G.Is. who milled around and before we left at about 10:30 we had rather an uproarious time of it with much singing and hilarity. The girls had urgent invitations to attend the enlisted men’s dance back at the post, so back we went and joined in the fun. It was a typical New Year’s Eve party and, despite the fact that there seemed to be a large number of girls present our gals seemed to be the focal point around whom the boys milled. The boys handled themselves excellently, courteous and considerate and I really saw little in the actions of any of them which was not commendable. I was proud of our G.Is., as indeed I have been wherever I have contacted them in the course of my wanderings. Shortly before midnight I saw several of the girls to their billets and then turned in myself. But sleep was not for us, as the call came about 2:00 A.M. alerting us for a 3:00 o’clock departure. Several of the girls came to the plane right from the dance, attended by a squad of their admiring G.Is.
We took off fairly promptly and, once in the air we wasted no time arranging ourselves on the floor in a chummy sort of way and slept (or attempted to), until daylight appeared. I got some rest but no sleep and was awake to see one of the most glorious sunrises I have ever viewed. The whole trip to the Azores was smooth and uneventful, but as we approached the islands we ran into a hard rain storm, landing at about 5:00 P.M. in the middle of it, – characteristic weather for that bleak spot. As we checked in we were told that a ninety mile wind was expected for that night and that, in all probability, we would be grounded for at least 48 hours. The girls were taken to their billets and we three men found ours and, after cleaning up went to dinner – and a good one – at the officers’ mess. We were all tired and the weather didn’t encourage ramblings, so we turned in about 8:30 for a good night’s sleep. But again we were doomed to disappointment for at midnight we were alerted for a 3:00 A.M. take-off the heavy wind not having materialized beyond about 40 M.P.H. We showed up at the terminal and had a good breakfast but no girls appeared until about 3:30. It seems they had forgotten to alert them until about three o’clock and then found several of them missing, still out with some of the officers of the AAF and ATC whom they had met there. So our departure was held up until they could be rounded up. Then it was announced that one of our gals had fallen from a jeep in process of alighting and had cracked four ribs, ending in the hospital. So we went on without her. It appears, however, that no bones were broken, though she had wrenched herself badly, and she later rejoined us in Paris.
We took off in a squally wind about 4:00 A.M., and repeated our sleeping procedure of the night before, with varying degrees of success. About 10:00 A.M. I was in the pilot’s cabin, sitting in the captain’s seat and with his binoculars when the coast of France appeared ahead. It was a beautifully clear morning and the sight was thrilling as we swept over the coast, passed over Brest and then watched the landscape of Normandy unroll before us. But my real thrill came later. I inquired whether we passed near Mont Ste. Michel and was informed that we would see it in the distance but that it was not directly in our line of flight. But those swell kids deviated from their course, dropped several thousand feet and completely circled that lovely spot in a tight turn so that I could take it in. It was a glorious sight in the morning sunlight and I was most grateful for their consideration. Incidentally, this particular ATC crew, whom we picked up in the Azores, were most enjoyable members of several of our subsequent Paris parties.
As we flew along we saw very few indications of the fighting which had gone on below us such a short time before, – an occasional demolished bridge, a few bomb craters and a rare building ruin. Otherwise the countryside was lovely and we were able to study under ideal conditions the typical Norman farms, villages and chateaus [sic] or villas which we passed. As we approached Paris a slight overcast obscured our view, and we dropped through it on to Orly Field in the middle of the afternoon without getting a view of Paris and its suburbs.
After checking in, converting U.S. currency to francs and picking up our baggage, a bus took us to the ATC office in Place Vendome, where we were assigned our billets in the Bohy Hotel. This is one of the hotels taken over by ATC for their officers and passengers, – far from modern, but very comfortable and reasonably well equipped with the facilities which we Americans have come to consider necessities. Meals were excellent. *** And, in passing, let me say that, on the whole, I have had better meals since leaving Washington than I averaged in that city during the past several years. The menu is a bit monotonous and powdered eggs do not make as good an omelet as fresh ones, but this is a very minor criticism. And all along the route we freely patronized the Red Cross enlisted men’s canteens. Here were comfortable dining and lounge rooms, pleasant service, all sorts of information for the asking, free stationery and lighter fluid and delicious coffee and doughnuts, the latter often still crisp and hot. I can’t say too much for the job this organization is doing at the air fields and all through the European Theatre.
Paris is always Paris, but we did not see it at its best. Mid-winter, insufficient fuel to keep buildings warm, food pitifully insufficient in quantity and variety in any but the American messes, the people dressed in the oddest sort of clothing – anything to resist the cold – and with bleak expressions, Streets in murky darkness at night, about the only autos on the streets those of the American outfits. No, I want to see it again in the late spring and under more normal economic conditions, when it is run by the Parisians and not by the invading Allied armies.
Our first evening we walked over to the Folies Bergere, which was interesting but hardly up to pre-war standards of splendor. Subsequent evenings were spent at the hotel, for to-day’s Paris holds little attraction after nightfall – and we had little money to permit us to visit and enjoy the traditional night spots. But each evening we had parties extending into the wee, sma’ hours, followed by arising at 6:15, a hurried breakfast and then a cold pre-dawn ride out to Villacoublay Air Field, only to be told late in the morning that no planes would go out that day. But our afternoons were our own, and we made good use of them. One day we took the Red Cross sight-seeing bus which gave a general, comprehensive view of the city, another day we joined the trip provided by ARC to Versailles and wandered all through the grounds and buildings there, – magnificence beyond compare, though hardly at its best under present conditions. We went through the palace, the Petit Trianon and Marie Antoinette’s “farm” – and returned to Rainbow Corner, the main Red Cross canteen for warmth, coffee and doughnuts. Another afternoon we wandered on the left bank of the Seine, visited the book stalls at the edge of the river, investigated a little book and picture store, where I picked up (strangely enough) an old map of Maryland and Virginia, dated 1755, took in a lovely old Gothic church the name of which escapes me, stopped at a sidewalk cafe for vin and hot apricot juice, and explored the quaint streets of the Latin Quarter. This was really the highlight of the Parisian exposure.
Although our orders explicitly read “proceed by air” we got sort of fed up by daily frustration at Villacoublay, so on the fifth day we got reservation on a “duty train” for Frankfurt and steamed out of the Gare de l’Est late that afternoon. Men and women were separated and Hal Garos, a Norwegian who was the only male trip companion who remained for me, and I shared a second class day compartment with four G.Is. for the night, – an arrangement which obviously afforded little opportunity for sleep. We spent much of our time during the night on sidings or crawling along over reconstructed roadbeds, so it was morning before we reached the Rhine. We saw Wiesbaden, or what is left of it and crossed the Rhine over a temporary bridge, the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Bridge, constructed in its entirety by the Army engineers in nine days, at Maintz, sliding into Frankfurt in the middle of the morning. The main station is so badly damaged that it is practically unusable. The whole city is pretty well kaput, mainly as a result of incendiary bombing and street fighting, but the life of the city goes on in the midst of it. USFET as its headquarters in the former offices of I. G. Farben, but as I haven’t yet visited them I can’t report on their condition. We lunched at the officers’ club in the center of the city and pulled out for Berlin at 4:35 P.M. I was assigned the same train accomodations as I had enjoyed (?) the preceeding night, but couldn’t see two nights in succession of sleeplessness. So I threw my weight around and was able to change, sharing a first class compartment with one other chap, a Naval lieutenant. The girls were able to get sleeping car accomodations. I was able to stretch out full length on the very comfortable seat and had a pretty good sleep as a result.
After another night of dawdling along the way we pulled into Berlin, a station in the American Zone, about 11:00 A.M. and were bussed up to headquarters. Here the merry-go-round started, – visits to the Billetting Office, where we were assigned temporary billets, to the Visitors’ Bureau, where we checked in, signed a number of forms, etc., Personnel Office where we made our working arrangements, applied for per diem pay while in travel status, arranged for pay allotments, and attended to a number of other details. Here my friend, George Vadney, found me, and we went back to my temporary billet for a letter I had brought him from his wife, the first word he had received from home since he left December 15th. Then I reported to my boss, Col. A. Heath Onthank, Personnel Officer of OMGUS and a perfectly grand chap with whom I shall be working very closely. We established an entente cordiale immediately and briefly discussed matters of business before I went over to Harnack Haus for a snack at 3:30, the first I had had to eat since 5:30 that morning.
This circular was written in two parts. The second part will continue on 27 January.